4 things TV medical dramas get wrong about residency

Brendan Murphy
Staff Writer
AMA Wire
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Medical residents are just like anyone else. They do laundry, they get married, they have dogs and—to judge by the ratings—quite a few likely sit down to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” on TV. On the surface, the life of a medical resident is not all that glamorous.

 

Still, when the life of a resident is portrayed on TV—as it has on “Grey’s Anatomy” and a number of other dramas across just about every network over the past few decades—the narrative seldom matches the reality. TV is not the place to go to find out what residency is like. Here is a look at the biggest misrepresentations involving resident physicians on the small screen.

They are doing what?

The scope of a resident’s responsibility, particularly that of a new resident, is often inflated on TV for the purpose of creating intrigue. For instance, first-year residents in the emergency department wouldn’t call a code early on in their training, nor would a first-year surgery resident perform a surgery on their first day in training. Yet those two circumstances were portrayed as reality on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Resident,” respectively.

There is also the element of supervision that factors into a resident’s work. Residents are heavily supervised. The structure of attendings, chief residents, senior residents and interns in place protects patients and physicians. It is not often conveyed that way on TV.

Where’s the love?

Residents in medical dramas are typically single and looking to mingle (with their colleagues). While relationships between residents and other health professionals are fairly common—40 percent of physicians marry a spouse who is also in the health care industry—the prevalence of single residents in these shows is a bit misleading.

For example, a 2017 survey of about 200 incoming residents at Johns Hopkins found that 45 percent of them were married. Taking the relationship tension out of the hospital setting on a medical drama might make it less compelling, but would make it more accurate.  

Devil in the details

Having a resident perform seemingly minor tasks at bedside makes for a good mechanism for patient-physician dialogue in a TV writer’s room. In the real world, however, nurses do a lot of the tasks residents are portrayed as doing on TV.

Residents almost never draw blood, provide medicine or monitor an IV drip. On the flip side, much of the side work residents do spend their days on—100-plus hours a month on EHRs, for instance—doesn’t advance a plot point and so does not make it into the script.

Residents leave

From 1994–2005, John Carter rose from medical student to attending physician within the fictional County General hospital on NBC’s “ER.” Staying in one location makes it easier to sustain a TV show—and, one could argue, a stable life—but residents are infrequently afforded that luxury.

Upon completing residency, most residents leave their institution and, in some cases, they uproot their lives. Roughly half of residents who completed residency training between 2007 and 2016 are not even practicing in the state where they did their residency training, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2017 report on residents.

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