Television shows about doctors and hospitals are a common guilty (or not-so-guilty) pleasure, if ratings and the sheer number of them are any indication. But have you ever wondered exactly how accurate these fictional hospitals are when it comes to the science and medicine behind all of that drama?
While the writers of “ER” met with real doctors to develop ideas for episodes, the show is by no means the most medically accurate on this list. For example, The New York Times reported that medical students were not placing breathing tubes correctly because they had learned the skill from watching shows like “ER.” In a similar vein, a 1996 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that medical TV shows like “ER” were giving people unrealistic expectations about CPR’s effectiveness: On the show, CPR saves the patient’s life significantly more often than it would in reality. Additionally, the show often has doctors performing duties that, in real life, would be the nurses’ jobs, Sandy Summers, executive director of the Center for Nursing Advocacy, told Forbes. On the bright side, the show gains accuracy points for raising awareness for many important health issues, like the availability of emergency contraception and the link between HPV and cervical cancer.
“Grey’s Anatomy” (2005-present)
Despite the fact that this show’s writers work with medical advisors, “Grey’s Anatomy” has received criticism for favoring drama and suspense over accuracy (somehow we don’t think a surgeon would ever be allowed to practice medicine again after stopping a patient’s heart in a risky scheme to bump him up on the transplant list). Indeed, one of the show’s medical consultants, Karen Pike, M.D., told Stanford Medicine Magazine that her advice to the writers is sometimes ignored. A 2018 study actually found that the show’s portrayal of trauma victims gives real-life patients unrealistic expectations in the ER. Critics have also called out the show, now in its 14th season, for over-glamorizing the lives of surgical interns — even beyond the implausible number of affairs. For example, a real-life surgeon noted that first-year interns rarely get to skip all of the scut work and head straight for the operating room. The same surgeon said the show also messes up on something incredibly basic: Doctors use tape to keep patients eyes shut for safety during surgery in real life — this never happens on “Grey’s Anatomy,” which features countless scenes in the operating room. Details, schmetails, apparently.
“Scrubs” is a hospital show driven mainly by the antics and fantastic daydreams of goofball Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian (played by Zach Braff). One scene even features J.D. riding his scooter into a puddle, disappearing, then reappearing in a completely different puddle only to say: “I think I saw a manatee.” All of this considered, it may be surprising to find that critics and real medical professionals alike have repeatedly called “Scrubs” the most accurate medical show on TV. The show’s creator, Bill Lawrence, based much of the show on his real-life friend’s experiences in a medical residency program. In fact, he regularly had the show’s writers interview doctors to generate story ideas based on real-life hospital situations. And unlike other dramatic medical shows, “Scrubs,” despite its comedic tone, often ends its episodes on a somber or uncertain note — much more realistic than other shows that tend to tie up loose ends and send each patient home, cured, at the end of the half-hour block.
This medical drama varies quite a bit when it comes to medical accuracy. Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie, is the sarcastic, antisocial lead character, and each episode follows his investigative journey in diagnosing complex patient cases that no one else can seem to crack. One physician, Scott Morrison, once dedicated his blog to rating the medical accuracy of the show’s episodes. In 2012, he told Forbes, “An average House episode may rate a C, but that is still miles above any other show out there.” While some episodes are wildly inaccurate (for example, Morrison calls out one season 6 episode where a doctor gives someone a “truth serum drug,” which, surprise, doesn’t really exist), others are spot-on when it comes to real-life medicine — minus all of the shock-and-drama that comes with primetime TV, of course.
“The Mindy Project” (2012-2017)
“The Mindy Project” follows the life of a young OB-GYN (played by Mindy Kaling) who seems to have it together professionally, but not so much when it comes to her personal life. The choice to make Mindy the only female OB-GYN in her practice may have been for entertainment reasons, but it certainly is not an accurate representation of real-world OB-GYN demographics: According to the American Medical Association, 85 percent of OB-GYN residents are women. The show also highlights a supposed rivalry between OB-GYNs and (again, male) midwives and has received criticism for its portrayal of midwifery in general. Holly Kennedy, president of the American College of Nurse-Midwives, defended the profession to The Atlantic, saying that, actually, “certified nurse-midwives and certified midwives work collaboratively with OB-GYNs across all birth settings.” As for accuracy of actual clinical practice on the show, “The Mindy Project” gets a pass — but only because the doctors are rarely shown actually seeing patients or practicing medicine at all.
“Marcus Welby, MD” (1969-1976)
“Marcus Welby, MD” is quite different from most modern-day fictional doctors, whose flaws are often highlighted to create drama. Welby was a general practitioner, played by Robert Young, portrayed as a wise and caring physician — almost like a father figure to some of his patients. At least for the time period in which it was made, “Welby” ranks high in medical accuracy. As was the case for several other early medical shows, the writers of “Marcus Welby, M.D.” worked with the American Academy of Family Physicians, who reviewed each script to ensure they were getting everything right. In an op ed for the New York Times in 1972, a doctor named Michael J. Halberstam wrote, “The show is authentic, no doubt of that,” adding that “it is technically perfect.” As for modern critiques of the show? Patients wishtheir doctors had the same personality of Dr. Welby.
“Call the Midwife” (2012-present)
This British drama series from the BBC focuses on a midwife in 1950s London. Like other contemporary medical dramas, “Call the Midwife” has a technical advisor on board to help ensure medical accuracy. And they mean business — the prosthetic babies they use in filming cost around 5000 British pounds each. The advisor, midwife Terri Coates, actually inspired fellow-midwife Jennifer Worth to write the memoirs on which the TV show is based. Beyond Coates’ guidance, the show’s writers rely on research from various medical journals. In addition to being medically accurate, the show is also historically accurate thanks to the same dedication to research when it comes to the setting of postwar London.
“Nurse Jackie” (2009-2015)
Where “ER” gets flack for giving doctors the duties that nurses handle in real life, “Nurse Jackie,” as one may guess from the title, is all about the nurses. One nurse, reviewing the show for The New York Times, praised “Nurse Jackie” for its “realistic and mostly positive” portrayals of nursing. But that doesn’t mean the entire nursing community is thrilled with the way the profession is portrayed on TV — mostly thanks to the main character. Edie Falco stars as Jackie, an emergency department nurse who struggles with an addiction to painkillers. In the first episode, she flushes a patient’s ear down the toilet. Oops.
Lara is a digital editor for HealthCentral. She is the site’s staff writer, Sexual Health editor, and email newsletter chief. Previously, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs, where she became obsessed with learning about women’s health, and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com. Connect with her on Twitter @laradesanto.