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No surprise plot twist here: Study finds ‘House’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ rife with ethical and professional lapses

I have to admit that I haven’t watched “Grey’s Anatomy” since its inaugural season, and I’ve seen “House” only intermittently during its six years on the air.

But even if you’ve watched only one episode of either show, you won’t be surprised by the findings of a new study from a team of bioethicists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore:

Both “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are “rife with powerful portrayals of bioethical issues and egregious deviations from the norms of professionalism.”

Well, duh!

OK, OK. Even the authors of the study, which appears in the April issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, acknowledged that they weren’t expecting to discover anything different. But, as they note in their study’s conclusions, they wanted to quantify the ethical and professional lapses in these shows in order to “open a discussion” on how the portrayal of bioethics and professionalism in TV dramas affects the attitudes and behavior of patients and health care professionals alike.

Shows like “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” aren’t popular (and influential) only with the general public. An earlier study from this same group of researchers found that more than 80 percent of medical and nursing students are fans of TV medical dramas. That study also found that such shows often instigate discussions among the students about bioethical issues.

Straying from the norm

How rampant are the ethical and professional lapses in “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy”?

The researchers analyzed one full season (2005-2006) of both shows (50 episodes combined). They found 179 depictions of distinct bioethical issues, such as performing a procedure without a patient’s consent or making a patient sicker in order to move the patient up on a waiting list for a donor heart.

A large percentage of these depictions not only showed doctors acting unethically, but getting away with it. For example, in 18 of the 22 incidents in which doctors were shown departing from standard medical practice guidelines (is there ever an episode in which Dr. House doesn’t depart from standard practices?), none of the doctors were penalized, although the unorthodoxy of their conduct was acknowledged. (One of the exceptions was the “Grey’s Anatomy” episode concerning the patient on the donor organ waiting list. The intern involved was fired.)

The Johns Hopkins researchers also identified 396 depictions of professionalism in the year’s worth of episodes they examined — conduct either among medical colleagues or with patients. (The study limited its analysis to incidents that were either “egregious” or “exemplary” examples of professionalism.)

The depictions of these incidents were overwhelmingly negative, and most involved flagrantly disrespectful behavior. (Unsurprisingly, 88 percent of the disrespectful incidents in “House” involved Dr. House himself.)

The next most commonly observed departure from professionalism? Sexual misconduct. (This finding may have been slightly skewed, however, by a running plotline in the 2005-2006 “Grey’s Anatomy” season involving a relationship beween an intern and her patient. Or maybe not. Like I said, I haven’t been watching the show.)


Yes, the study’s findings may be obvious, but they may also be significant. Medical dramas appear to be able to influence patient expectations.

“People will sometimes expect to be seen immediately, just like on the television shows,” the medical director of one hospital emergency department told a Texas reporter. “Because the shows are an hour long, people will sometimes expect us to have their problem fixed in under an hour.”

Wow. Talk about putting pressure on our physicians and nurses.

“Although medical dramas strive for realism and employ physicans as consultants in this pursuit,” wrote the Johns Hopkins researchers,” it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of these television shows is to entertain.”

Yes, indeed.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 04/02/2010 - 08:49 pm.

    “Although medical dramas strive for realism”

    No, they don’t. They strive to be believable, but realistic? TV has created a serious problem. Willing suspension of disbelief used to be something people did at the theater. Now it is a permanent state of mind and no longer really willing. People know they only “play doctors” on television, but they still trust the actors medical advice.

  2. Submitted by Gary Thaden on 04/05/2010 - 03:00 pm.

    These are the same issues we talked about (ethics, professionalism, and solving problems in an hour) when I was in law school (in 1986)when “L. A. Law” was on television. The issues on how tv depicts real life continues.

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