Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers - Pacific Standard

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.
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E.R. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television Distribution)

E.R. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television Distribution)

For physicians and health educators, getting people to consider the consequences of the choices they make is a continuing challenge. Recently published research has identified a surprising factor that appears to be getting in their way: Excessive viewing of Grey’s Anatomy.

“Heavy viewers of medical dramas tend to underestimate the gravity of chronic illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, and undermine the importance of tackling these issues,” concludes Howard University researcher Jae Eun Chung.

“They also take a more fatalistic perspective, possibly because of the unrealistically high number of illness-caused deaths in medical shows,” she writes in the journal Human Communication Research.

"Heavy viewers of medical dramas can internalize fatalistic beliefs by observing illness experiences of fictional characters. Such beliefs ... can ultimately affect individuals’ coping efforts and decisions to seek medical care."

Chung utilized data on a nationally representative sample of 11,555 Americans taken from the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey. She focused on responses collected in monthly questionnaires distributed between January 2007 and December 2009.

Participants were asked how many episodes of four specific medical dramas they watched during a typical month: Grey’s Anatomy, House, E.R., and Strong Medicine. They also reported on how often they read newspapers and watched television newscasts.

They then were presented with fatalistic statements about a dreaded disease: “It seems like almost everything causes cancer,” and “There are so many recommendations about preventing cancer, it’s hard to know which ones to follow.” Participants responded to each on a five-point scale (“strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”).

Finally, they were asked to choose “the three most important health problems facing the country today,” choosing from a list that included cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, drugs and alcohol, and health-care costs.

“As expected, heavy viewers of medical dramas held more fatalistic beliefs,” Chung reports. While that tendency has previously been linked to watching local television news, this study suggests it is exacerbated by regularly tuning into medical dramas.

Chung cites “story lines that highlight uncertainties and fatalistic outcomes, along with scant information about prevention” as possible explanations for this finding.

“Heavy viewers of medical dramas can internalize fatalistic beliefs by observing illness experiences of fictional characters,” she notes. “Such beliefs ... can ultimately affect individuals’ coping efforts and decisions to seek medical care.”

In addition, Chung found people who view many medical dramas had different perceptions of the most important medical issues in current society. For one thing, they “were less likely to regard cardiovascular disease and cancer as important societal problems.” Previous research has found those common diseases are underrepresented on TV medical shows.

It all suggests these popular dramas affect the attitudes of at least some viewers, and not in a positive way. Perhaps physicians should ask new patients not only how often they’ve been to the E.R., but how often they’ve watched E.R.

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