Doctor dramas: are they a hazard to our health?

The end of the summer holidays always signals a spate of new television and internet dramas. Medical dramas, in particular, are very cost effective for the television and streaming industries. Sets are simple. There are stock storylines that can be regularly recycled, such as cancer, rape, accidental injury, and paralysis. Usually there is only one heroine or hero so casting is relatively cheap. Most characters can be replaced as easily as the rotation of an internship.

On screen patients never wait longer than the length of an advertisement for something clinical to happen.

Sounds innocuous, however, in the make believe world created by TV medicine, subliminal messaging can become a health hazard. For example, frequent viewers of medical TV shows are more scared about having an operation than all other patients, and it is the younger patients who are more susceptible. The highest level of fear is in the under 40 year old group and the lowest level is in the over 70 year olds. Medical dramas can also compound the effects of unfavourable TV and newspaper articles. In one study, three quarters of the patients taking the cholesterol lowering agents (statins) stopped treatment.

On more organizational level, the health care system is largely ignored on screen. Patients never wait longer than the length of an advertisement for something clinical to happen. Patients with chronic problems are easily dismissed and never come back in a subsequent episode for follow up. There is never any mention of payment. It was only when Netflix introduced Breaking Bad and a middle class teacher who couldn’t pay for his cancer treatment, that payment became an issue and only then as an entrée to the world of illegal drugs.

However, the medical storyline doesn’t always have to be hazardous. TV viewing, regardless of whether the programing is self-selected or standardized, heightens other healthy activities, for example, our enjoyment of exercise. Carefully crafted medical dramas, because of their general reach, can deliver complicated ideas and arguments in an understandable way. In daily chat, we can often refer films and television to get our ideas across both clearly and succinctly.

It is time for the medical profession to take a greater interest in the industry. The development of guidelines can help raise the value of these programs for our communities.

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