Those of us who put on scrubs every morning know that the way medical professions are portrayed on screen tends to be a bit… exaggerated. Sure, all hospitals and doctors’ offices have their fair share of drama – it comes with the territory, that’s for sure – but we all know our job can be just as mundane and routine as everybody else’s, depending on the day.
Despite this, we’ve noticed that many script writers have taken some pretty fanciful liberties with regard to medical plotlines. We don’t know about you, but we love seeing the creative ways Hollywood depicts our careers, so we’ve been keeping track of all the craziest! Here are some of the most out-there medical myths we’ve seen shown on TV and in film.
- Appendices Don’t Just Burst Out of Nowhere – Have you ever noticed that, presumably out of convenience, plotlines often involve a sudden ruptured appendix to heighten the drama? As real as the condition may be, there’s usually a bit of fair warning when it comes on, not the way it tends to happen on TV. There are so many excellent examples of the burst appendix trope out there. It was used in Family Matters, M*A*S*H, CSI and even classic medical dramas ER and Doogie Howser, MD. As a matter of fact, even legendary writers like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury have used it. The same goes for the “convenient coma” wherein a character is suddenly rendered unconscious for long periods of time, solely to serve the plot.
- You Can’t Read a Radiograph in a Split Second – The “Radiograph of Doom” is a very real TV trope that perpetuates the myth that all medical professionals can identify a diagnosis within five seconds of laying eyes on a radiograph. They hold up the film and *gasp* all the patient’s problems suddenly become immediately obvious. The truth, as we all know, is that radiographs only provide clues into a diagnosis. They don’t tell the whole story. Among our favorite examples of the instant radiograph read is on Scrubs when a doctor looks at a random chest X-ray and, without knowing anything about the patient, declares how advanced their lung cancer is and says, “The owner of those lungs is gonna die, like, yesterday.” Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that.
- Amnesia in General – The way that medically-induced amnesia is treated in films and on TV is almost always wildly inaccurate. For the most part, writers love to portray the condition as a permanent condition that causes a character to forget everything about their identity, generally out of convenience to make certain plotlines work. To make matters worse, many shows perpetuate the myth that to restore memory, one must be theatrically bonked on the head and – voila! – all memories will return! The reality is that amnesia generally refers to a temporary condition and that re-injuring the head or brain is the last thing any real doctor would do to treat it.
- Wrong Defibrillator Placement – Any doctor, nurse or EMT who has ever watched TV knows that this is one of the most frustrating medical drama myths there is. On film, characters tend to place the paddles of the AED in a parallel position at the top of the chest, presumably to emphasize that this is an attempt to revive a non-working heart. In reality, as we all know, in adults, the paddles must be positioned in anterior-apex placement, with one at the right chest below the clavicle and one beneath the pectoral muscles of the left chest. Improper AED use is shockingly pervasive on screen, even on beloved shows like House, Dexter, Fringe and Rookie Blue.
- Test Results and Diagnoses Are Immediate – As we all know, writers and producers must use time-compression techniques in order to fit long, complex plotlines into 30- or 45-minute blocks of time. This often means that things that take patients and medical professionals years – especially complicated diagnoses involving tests and screenings – happen in a matter of minutes. A simple listen with the stethoscope and a glance at an X-ray is not enough to lead to a big, dramatic diagnosis, at least not usually. So if you’ve noticed that your patients tend to be a bit impatient when seeking a diagnosis, we may have medical media to blame.
- Drugs Only Take a Single Dose – In the same vein, you’ll often notice that drugs that in real life take multiple courses magically cure even the most devastating on-screen illnesses. One quick shot or a handful of pills and voila! You’re magically cured! This is typically, much like the instant test results trope, to compress the plotline and save time, but it reinforces negative stereotypes that treatments should be immediately effective.
- CPR as a Magical Revival Cure – Like the wrong-defibrillator-placement trope, the CPR-as-a-magical-revival trope is one of the most frustrating TV medical myths among professionals. On screen, CPR is treated as an instant revival technique that has the power to bring back the dead. In reality, CPR is a preservative protocol rather than a revival protocol, designed to help keep people alive long enough to get to proper medical care. Unfortunately, in real life, CPR is not nearly as effective as it is on TV. According to the American Heart Association, less than half of all cases of bystander CPR cases are effective. The reality is that CPR is extremely useful, but it’s not a magic cure.
Love crazy medical dramas even though they generally seem to be very fictional? Us, too! We’re keeping track of all the wild and crazy medical myths perpetuated in film and TV, so clue us into any you may have noticed.