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  • Society of Bioethics and Medicine

Heartache and Literal Heartaches: The Grey’s Anatomy Effect

Written by Lily Li

Edited by Joey Huang


The human body is delicate. The constant innovation and application of novel technologies is certainly groundbreaking, but technology always seems to fall slightly short of completely replacing or restoring natural biological functions. Medicine is just not as advanced as most people believe (2), however far it has come.


Binaries have become standards for people: enter a hospital and be cured. Though everyone has had their own experiences with healthcare, and perhaps even witnessed others fall to the limits of medicine, why does such a binary mindset exist? The medical field is constantly romanticized in popular media; doctors in medical dramas seem to have the capability to carry out the impossible and bring people back to life when all was thought to be lost.

A classical medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy conflates the personal and professional lives of surgeons in a now 19-season-long show that stands as one of the most well-known portrayals of medicine in media. Grey’s Anatomy is overwhelmingly positively received, amassing high ratings and countless awards for its entertainment. (1) Yet it’s more than just entertainment. Viewers develop unrealistic expectations of medicine and patient care: what researchers call The Grey’s Anatomy Effect. (2)


The inflated survival rates and exceedingly unlikely successes of new technologies in Grey’s Anatomy are expected—exaggeration is what makes it a drama, of course—but should they be accepted?


Of 269 screened episodes, most plot lines featured patients who went immediately from ERs (emergency rooms) to ORs (operating rooms), and then had less than a week of stay for recovery (or, in other words, had no need for long-term care.) (2) The medical phenomena in Grey’s Anatomy condition viewers to hold unrealistic expectations for medical care, such as the rapid and functional recovery from traumatic injuries. The influence of medical dramas extends beyond the public’s conceptions of the ER and OR. Communications research done by Brian L. Quick et al. reports that the audience of Grey’s Anatomy has a distorted perception of the organ donation process. (3) That such misconceptions arise is no surprise, especially when episodes depict doctors cutting LVAD wires to prioritize a patient on a transplant list (Episode 35), denying a family-less patient of a transplant (Episode 131), and pressuring the families to release their late loved ones’s organs (Episode 91). However, it’s undeniable that a topic as morally heavy as organ donation should not be treated so lightly; it’s a process that is strict and valued. The levity with which organ donation is depicted in Grey’s Anatomy could understandably make viewers question whether their donated organs will be held to a standard of due respect, perhaps even dissuading them from donating.


The effects of medical dramas on a patient’s view of medicine are profound. The audiences of this genre are more likely to perceive cardiovascular diseases as less important societal issues and to uphold a standard of courageousness for their doctors, which creates unrealistic expectations for a typical patient-doctor relationship. (2) Yes, patients are entitled to care and autonomy, but to a certain boundary that should be understood. Even the most minuscule of details—the lack of eye bags and usage of makeup—serve to undermine the mental and physical toll that residents and surgeons undergo.


What, then, are the appropriate measures to take regarding medical dramas?


The trouble with medical dramas is that they are only what they are—exaggerated representations of medical anomalies—which doesn’t necessarily classify them as “bad” media. They’re stories constructed for entertainment, not documentaries. Nowhere does Grey’s Anatomy declare itself to be an accurate representation of medicine, even when it draws on recent publications and real accounts from surgeons to storyboard an episode. Truthfully, the audience relies too heavily on television for their health information and decision-making. (2) In fact, 42% of geriatric patients used television as their primary source of medical knowledge. (2)


Only when it’s recognized that medical dramas aren’t inherently ethically harmful and that the viewers have a responsibility to separate reality from romanticized television, that these subconsciously influenced misconceptions can be diminished. As with all other media, the viewer cannot ignore their responsibility to gather their health information from reliable sources lest they be disappointed when doctors fall short of televised expectations. The marvel of modern media is its accessibility, but that only increases the importance of distinguishing between convenient entertainment and truth.


Indeed, medical dramas are not necessarily the best at upholding an image of “right” and straying away from the “wrong.” As much as medical dramas may be a complex web of heartaches and literal heartaches, or more literally, a mix of healthcare and entertainment, they are simply just that.


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1. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0413573/

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5887783/

3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0093650213475476


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