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Doctors have been featured on television for over five decades. Early on, they were typically depicted as almost superhuman: infallible, good looking, caring and with perfect bedside manners. With time, we’ve seen more shows that portray them as flawed antiheroes – usually still very good looking but sex-obsessed and struggling with various mental health issues.
On the surface, the idea of watching a TV show that follows doctors through their everyday lives doesn’t seem that appealing: medical jargon, the sight of injuries and blood, and the harsh realities of what it means to be a doctor. Oh, and imminent deaths. Let’s not forget that.
However, despite all this, we can tell from the high ratings, and the numerous seasons medical dramas usually have that people rather enjoy watching them. Why is that?
Our Complicated Relationship with Our Bodies
The health and integrity of our bodies are very important to us, so naturally, watching a show about all the things that could go wrong with our bodies has a certain appeal. The patients in these shows often have rare medical conditions, and everything that could go wrong will go wrong. It’s a lot like watching a train wreck. You want to look away, but you can’t.
Actually, medical dramas can even create an obsession with bodily welfare. We all have bodies, but we don’t all have medical degrees, so watching a show like House will make us feel that we know more about our bodies and give us a comforting sense of control while at the same time showing us everything that could go wrong with it. Who hasn’t googled a medical condition after watching an episode of House?
The Fight or Flight Response
Medical dramas also activate our sympathetic nervous system triggering our fight or flight response. These aren’t shows about spies trying to catch or get away from the bad guys. They’re about ordinary people and situations we can relate to.
Because of this, they give us a feeling of being scared even when we know that at the end of the episode, we will be fine. It’s engaging, exciting and entertaining.
Lots of Drama
In medical dramas, the stakes are far higher than in most other shows, which serves to keep the suspense high and, to a certain extent, nearly constant throughout the series. No matter if they end in tragedy or not, hospitals are a never-ending source of compelling stories.
Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, said that in a hospital, it feels like there are a thousand stories in every room, and you see things that you’d never imagined. That’s what sparked her interest in the first place. David Shore, the executive producer of House and The Good Doctor, confessed that what fascinated him was the conflict between intellect and emotion.
But to really understand what makes medical dramas so popular, we need to go back to Aristotle, who said that the goal of a good tragedy is to produce “catharsis” in the audience.
We’re essentially watching people who struggle to save lives. They rise and fall, and we see their strengths, weaknesses and complexities. As they overcome obstacles, they gain a better understanding of not just what it means to be a doctor but also a human being. And we learn with them. That’s what triggers the catharsis Aristotle was writing about.
Ordinary People We Identify With
Another reason is that we’re a social species, and we’ve survived and thrived by learning from each other. That’s why we like watching other people struggle with problems we worry we might one day also face. We want to learn from them.
As we said before, we all have bodies, and we’re all concerned with what would happen if we or someone we love got injured, become ill or worse. So we watch medical dramas and see how these ordinary people we can easily identify with handle such a situation, and we try to imagine what we would do in their place.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that the people who create these medical dramas look for inspiration in real-life hospitals. Moreover, this gives them a chance to shed light on social issues like domestic violence, costs of care and mental illness.
The Issue of Accuracy in Medical Dramas
No article about medical dramas would be complete without bringing up the issue of medical accuracy. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in the hospital, and that’s a good thing. It means we don’t need to. Our bodies are healthy enough that we can spend our time living life.
But this also means that we don’t have a lot of experience or knowledge about what happens in hospitals. For those of us that watch medical dramas, we’ve spent a lot more time watching fictional doctors than we’ve interacted with real ones.
We know that these are TV shows, so they’re not entirely accurate but once again, we don’t have medical degrees and limited experience in hospital settings, so we don’t know which parts are accurate and which are not.
For example, a 2020 study titled “The Depiction of Medical Errors in a Sample of Medical Television Shows” examined a sample of the most popular medical TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, House, ER, Chicago Med and The Good Doctor and found discrepancies between the prevalence of medical errors as depicted in these shows and statistics from actual US hospitals.
This can lead to anxiety related to health problems and mistrust in medical professionals. Though it’s good that these shows encourage us to take better care of ourselves, it’s important to double-check the accuracy of what we see from more reliable sources like CompensationCalculatorUk.co.uk.
The CDC also conducted a survey in 2005 and found that 67% of people who watch primetime dramas reported that they had learned something new about a disease or health issue from these shows.
Furthermore, if a television show is very popular, it means that its cultural impact is wide enough to influence even those who don’t watch it. It triggers a dialogue about a topic, and this develops into a type of cultural public opinion.