How Accurate are Hospital-related TV Shows?

Hospital-related TV Shows
How Accurate are Hospital-related TV Shows

While it’s true that Sacred Heart Hospital (Scrubs), Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital (Grey’s Anatomy) and County General Hospital (ER) are all fictional hospitals, it can get tricky discerning fact from fiction in these shows. Television medical drama has come a long way since Marcus Welby, MD, but it’s not exactly reality TV either.

Do the actors portraying doctors always say the terms correctly? Generally, yes. What about the often used plotline where the patient flat-lines and is brought back to life? How often does that happen? Not as frequently as seen on TV. So what is real, and what isn’t?

Well, we at Roper St. Francis have put together a list that will hopefully help to distinguish fact from fiction. And if you need a real doctor, not just someone who plays one on TV, find a great one here. But first, the scenarios.


scenario one SCENARIO : divider


A pedestrian was crossing the street when he’s hit by a car running a red light. The ambulance arrives just in time, and he’s wheeled into the hospital. His blood pressure is dropping quickly. He stops breathing and immediately flat-lines. The ER doctor yells, “Quick, get the defibrillator! We’re losing him!” The doctor then takes the defibrillator, rubs each part together, and places it on the patient’s chest. He yells, “Clear!” The patient jerks back to life.


magnifying glass

Defibrillators work only in certain cases, when a heart monitor has an erratic trace, rather than a complete flat line. Also, patients don’t jerk completely from the bed. The electric shock, instead, causes a patient’s body to jolt. A person can’t be shocked back to life if they’ve flat-lined (called asystole in the medical field). The patient’s heart has no electrical activity, and the shock only works if there’s an electrical differential that can be picked up by the monitor. If you shock a person who has flat-lined, you will be in essence burning their heart.

scenario two SCENARIO : divider

The medical drama opens with a scene showing a construction worker lying on the ground, who has somehow managed to survive a small explosion from faulty wiring in an old building. But he didn’t get off that easily. A piece of debris is lodged on the right side of his torso. Like Rambo, he grabs the shrapnel and pulls it out of his torso. “Better to get it now before it causes any major damage,” he thinks.

TV doctor with patient


Aside from the extreme pain the construction worker must be feeling at the moment, he will start bleeding profusely and could die from the loss of blood that he’ll experience from having pulled out the debris. The best thing to do is to wait for the medics to arrive. We can just see it now. Instead of the episode being about healing the patient from wounds sustained from the explosion, the episode will be dedicated to saving the patient’s life from a split-second, incorrect decision that he made.

scenario three SCENARIO : divider

A doctor diagnoses a case not in his/her specialty. He also gives an MRI to this same patient, analyzes a blood sample, and then performs surgery on this same patient.He basically does everything.

TV doctor and nurses running


What this scenario fails to represent are the multiple specialty doctors and skilled clinical staff who work together on a patient’s care. The hospital is a place where more teamwork exists than is generally shown on television, which typically places the focus on a single attractive doctor

scenario four SCENARIO : divider

A doctor lauded for his brilliance is a misanthrope who hates people and treats his team and patients badly.

doctor performing surgery


Not every medical professional is a saint, but bad behavior is generally not tolerated. Colleagues and hospital administration would in reality most likely confront the highly respected, yet socially inept doc.

scenario five SCENARIO : divider

A patient comes into the hospital with a severe head injury and can’t remember who or where she is. Later on, she hits her head again from falling accidentally and suddenly remembers who she is again.

woman trying to remember


So it’s definitely possible for someone to develop amnesia from a severe head injury, but not to recover from simply absorbing another blowMedical dramas often have soapy elements that make for better television, and this is one.

scenario six SCENARIO : divider

A group is out camping, and one person has just been bitten by a venomous snake. Someone tries to suck the venom out of the wound, but it doesn’t stop the pain of the person who was bitten or the spread of the venom. The ambulance arrives in enough time to get both campers to the hospital, one for the snake bite and the other for the attempt at removing venom from the snake bite.

venomous snake


This scenario is accurate in that both the person who was bitten and the person who tried to help this person need medical attention. The person who was bitten will need anti-venom, and the best case scenario is that they are saved soon after the bite before the venom seriously starts to harm the person. Luckily, less than 1% of people who are bitten die from snake bites. While it might seem intuitive to suck out the venom from the point of contact, it’s very dangerous for the person who does this because the venom can still burn a person’s trachea (windpipe) and damage the stomach.

scenario seven SCENARIO : divider

Two doctors decide to perform an autopsy on a dead body because they believe that the original diagnosis of death was incorrect. The Chief of Surgery walks in on them doing the autopsy, and she allows them to proceed.

doctors talking over treatment


In the real world, doctors would be fired, sued and could lose their licenses for medical malpractice. It’s very serious, and although this particular example was humorous in the show and truthful—the person really had died for a different reason—it’s still illegal.

scenario eight SCENARIO : divider

A patient doesn’t want to be treated. They’ve got a busy life, and that brain tumor needs to wait. The patient decides to leave the hospital, and, as she’s walking out, she collapses to the ground. A group of doctors—the same who were trying to find her to convince her to have the operation—find her collapsed and immediately begin CPR, and she springs back to life, eyes open, with no noticeable injuries, not remembering that she lay collapsed and lifeless moments before.

doctor in elevator


While CPR does work, it has an abnormally high success rate on hospital-related shows. More often than not, it is used to develop a story line and prolong a sequence, and accuracy is of little to no importance when TV writers need material for an entire season. CPR’s actual success rate is closer to 5 to 10%. Some 350,000 people per year in the United States do experience cardiac arrest (one person every 90 seconds), so this procedure (introduced in the 1960s) is certainly important.

What is different from television, as well, is that the majority of real life CPR patients are older, with long-term heart or lung problems, while TV patients are younger and often experience trauma before being revived. One study showed that 75% of television patients are alive right after CPR, which unfortunately just doesn’t happen in real life.

Television also doesn’t address the fact that those resuscitated through CPR might sustain injuries through the process, which focuses mainly on restoring life rather than restoring life injury-free. The pressure placed on a person’s ribs can fracture (or break them), and if a person has been left without oxygen for too long, guess what? They might wake up with damage to the brain. Television shows are great, and can be full of drama and optimistic outcomes, but the reality is often less dramatic … and sometimes a bit more depressing.


Overall, we can’t deny that medical television shows make for great prime time viewing. Scenario after scenario keeps you glued to your seat and while a good deal of truth does exist there are also a number of inaccuracies. From partially inaccurate ways of treating patients to skirting ethical and legal boundaries to get the job done, we just wanted to softly highlight a few of the ways in which real life and television can be different. Prime time for us at Roper St. Francis is 24-7. So, if you have a medical concern schedule an appointment, you can be assured of great care without the drama.



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