Medicine On Screen: Doctors and Nurses On TV and In the Movies

Medicine On Screen Doctors and Nurses On TV and In the MoviesMedical dramas have been part of the American TV landscape in every decade since household televisions  became commonplace.

We had “Medic” (1950s), “The Doctors“/”The Nurses” (1960s), “Medical Center,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” and “Emergency!” (1970s), “Trapper John, M.D.” and “St. Elsewhere” (1980s), “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “Chicago Hope” (1990s), and “House M.D.” and “Scrubs” (2000s).

The trend continues to permeate pop culture today through series like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Nurse Jackie.” Even MTV is getting in on the trend, with its new show about traveling nurses called “Scrubbing In” that’s premiering at the end of the month.

And then there are the series that spanned decades, like “General Hospital” (it continues to live on after a record-setting 50 years) and “ER.”

So why does this genre endure, and why does the public love medical dramas so much? 


Simple escapism (touched with voyeurism) may be behind this ongoing phenomenon.

For people not in the medical field whose only experience with hospitals is from the patient perspective, these shows offer a glimpse of life on the other side of the hospital bed. Although medicine is still a respected profession today, some of those early dramas portrayed physicians and nurses as generally heroic beings, while only hinting at their human side.

In contrast, more recent dramas have tended to humanize the profession, presenting flawed characters who make mistakes, express regrets and have personal problems like the rest of us.

Drama In the Hospital

Ask anyone who works in a real-life medical facility, and they’ll point out that their daily routine isn’t filled with nonstop crisis and drama, that physicians and support staff are typically more ordinary looking than dreamy or steamy, and that you can almost always safely open supply closets or stairwell doors without encountering co-workers locked in steamy embraces.

Oh, and test results don’t come back from the lab instantly, either.

Physicians with abusive or difficult personalities (even if they’re Gregory House- or Perry Cox-brilliant) wouldn’t be revered in the real word; just like in other professions, they’d likely be dismissed if they couldn’t work well in the team environment that characterizes modern medical facilities. But modern audiences love the shows for the drama they portray.

Nurses: Underrepresented On the Big Screen

One common concern among real-life medical professionals is that nursing and support staff roles are typically underrepresented on screen, because physicians are portrayed as being far more involved in direct patient care than they are in real life.

Another problem with on-screen medicine, say real-world medical professionals, is that illnesses and treatments from miraculous resuscitation, to the medical chain of command, may be unrealistically portrayed for the sake of drama.

TV Saving Lives?

On the upside, there are numerous accounts of how ordinary citizens became aware of a medical symptom or risk factor because of a scene on TV, with some even crediting writers and producers with saving their lives. Others have been driven to get health screenings, sign up as organ donors, or support health-related causes because of what they’ve seen on television.

There are some things that we like about on-screen medicine, and other things we dislike. It’s great to see cool medical mysteries on TV, but we often wish that nurses got more credit. For that reason alone, we’re looking forward to the perspective that “Scrubbing In” will offer on travel nursing.

So what do you think? If you’re a nurse or other medical professional, do you like watching medical dramas, or would you rather spend your screen time watching something else? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter!

photo credit: dotpolka via photopin cc

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