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7 ways Hollywood goofs up medicine

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“As seen on TV” does not apply to the real world of medicine, nursing and health care in general. I for one fell victim to this urban legend until I entered the world of nursing and became entrenched in the ‘real’ world of health care.

We’ve all seen the TV shows. Everything from the groundbreaking ER, Third Watch, House, Nurse Jackie, HawthoRNe, Mercy, Three Rivers, Trauma, etc. The list is endless.

And the medical mistakes are legion…and not just about nursing.

Yes, I’m well aware it’s all about TV ratings. Yes, I’m also aware that you need to “sell” the audience on the plot of the series or episode. But, sometimes Hollywood medicine is so outrageous and so far from the truth that it’s mind boggling.

I think what leaves me speechless and slightly angered is the notion that John Q. Public actually thinks what they see on TV or in the theatres ‘must’ happen in the real world. When they enter the hospital, or the ambulance, the ER, the ICU, etc., they will be experiencing exactly what they saw!

My fellow health care professionals and I have to do damage control quite a bit by dispelling the myths and propaganda.

I thought I’d share with John Q. Public some of the frustrating falsehoods that are misrepresented out there in Hollywood medicine. I apologize how random this may be.

  • No, the doctors do not come to your bedside and draw your blood for impending surgeries. It’s the phlebotomist, or lab technician, or even a nurse.
  • No, most patients who have brain surgery or multiple surgeries in one sitting don’t wake up talking after they ‘recover’ with no oxygen! Most can remain sedated or still have a breathing tube in place for patient safety. At the very least, they won’t be carrying on full conversations immediately after surgery (especially if it’s a 4-10 hour surgery)!
  • The last time I checked, there are far more nurses on a hospital unit than physicians. Even at the larger hospitals.

4 more Hollywood gaffs, including bogus treatment of defibrillators…

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Sean Dent

Sean Dent is a second-degree nurse who has worked in telemetry, orthopedics, surgical services, oncology and at times as a travel nurse. He is a CCRN certified critical care nurse where he's worked in cardiac, surgical as well as trauma intensive care nursing. After five years practicing as an RN, Sean pursued and attained his Masters of Science in Nursing. Sean currently practices as a Board Certified Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNP-BC) in a Shock Trauma urban teaching hospital. He has been in healthcare for almost 20 years. He originally received a bachelor's degree in Exercise and Sport Science where he worked as a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC).
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84 Responses to 7 ways Hollywood goofs up medicine

  1. I never watch those shows. Especially the birth ones For reasons you just mentioned but also I spend enough time with white coats and scrub filled rooms. I don’t need to see that on my TV.

  2. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ pinky I can absolutely understand!

  3. Sandy

    So true, but you’re kind of preaching to the choir here!

  4. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Sandy LOL. You’re absolutely right. Maybe I just needed a vent? Heh heh.

  5. bettymerchen

    Amen! Love Hugh Laurie, but no, ONE doctor doesn’t do brain surgery, heart surgery, CT scans, blood draws, empties catheters, does angiograms and liver biopsies, etc. I always wonder why they don’t hire a medical consultant.

  6. It should be ILLEGAL to show someone being shocked over and over, and then the young rebel dr/nurse tries it “one more time” and they come back walking and talking even though they were down 45 minutes. Right! Everyone should have to see what really happens in a code.

  7. Katrina

    Another couple of points to add: Surgeons don’t usually shave or do surgical prep (once made me laugh out loud to see Dr. Derek Shepherd on Grey’s shaving a patient’s head before surgery). Also, no wonder patients on TV are in such bad shape… they don’t have the bag inflated when on a non-rebreather mask! Saw this a couple of times on a soap opera. :)

    • zanthinegirl

      Re: uninflated non-rebreather–

      In all fairness I saw that happen *last week* at my unnamed hospital. I did correct it, but sheesh.

    • whitbyrn80

      Actually, I have been an OR nurse for several years on the neuro surgery team and every single one of my surgeons clips the patient’s hair and two of them always do their own prep.

  8. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ bettymerchen exactly!

    @ cind Maybe not see the real thing – but don’t lie to the public.

  9. Stacy M, RN, BSN, soon-to-be MSN APNP

    Or, how about when the surgeon is scrubbing at the sink, with is mask dangling around his neck? Who in the heck is going to tie that up for him? In every OR I’ve ever worked in, if you’re dumb enough to forget to tie your mask before scrubbing, YOU fix it, and then re-scrub. Duh!!!

  10. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Stacy well said, not to mention how many times they break the sterile field! LOL

  11. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Katrina yes, once again they are depicting physicians doing the work of others. Never saw the no-bag inflated. Nice.

  12. Katt, RN, BSN

    I think my personal favorite was when one ER show called for “1mg ativan P.O. STAT!” after that I boycotted them all

  13. T

    Siderails are rarely up on tv–drives me crazy!

  14. “No, when you see a ‘flat line’ we do not ’shock’ the patient” – Really, this one got my attention and gave me a laugh…

    • LisaB

      People really believe that shocking will just “bring someone back to life” just like CPR will always keep someone from dying.

  15. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ T Now I’m going to focus on the siderails. Thanks! LOL
    @ Joe Glad you liked it.

  16. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Katt Yeah – that’s pretty bad. Thanks for sharing!

  17. monica

    I always like seeing the TV docs/nurses taking their gloves off the wrong way.

    Or on House when they don’t wear eye protection during certain surgeries. The people in the ORs I’ve been in wore them.

    Or sometimes they put the stethescope in their ears wrong.

  18. Jeyssa

    How bout the way they take off their gloves? Always touching the other dirty one? Or how Dr. Coop on Nurse Jackie was dressing a wound on todays episode? Ha! Yea Right!

  19. Robin

    What really blows my mind is seeing doctors doing chest compressions! Give me a break! We all know that the only break we get in compressions is that poor little old lady’s sternum. Call It!

  20. Kathy

    And they don’t deliver babies in the ER in real life!!!! Unless she comes in with it actually falling out. Everywhere I have ever worked, if she’s pregnant and comes in for heartburn she comes to OB in a wheelchair!!!!!!!!!

  21. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ monica Good one!

    @ Jeyssa I missed that one.

    @ Robin True, very true.

  22. I love seeing trached patients talk without a passy-muir valve (Million Dollar Baby, anyone?). Or the endless ways they picture someone hooked up to a ventilator, most of which would result in hypoxia.

  23. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Jenni OHHHH yes. I remember that oh so well.

  24. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Kathy I never thought of that! Good point.

  25. Juli, RN, BSN

    I love when a patient is laying in a hospital bed with a nasal cannula in and in the back ground you can hear a ventilator. Really??
    And I agree with the shocking of the asystole! Too much! lol

  26. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Juli I’ll have to pay attention to the sounds next time. LOL

  27. Maxx

    My biggest pet peeve is when they have the pacer pads/ECG on, doing CPR, it shows a flat line!!! I also saw a show where they were doing surgery on a GSW and the bleeding got out of control, the monitors were alarming and all they showed was them suctioning the bullet wound!! They never opened up the patient!!! ARRRGGGHHHHH!!!

  28. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Maxx Oh yes, don’t you just love the accuracy.

  29. nancy

    I stopped watching House a long time ago, when he was sick with a BAD cold, sneezing and everything and walked into a room to talk with a neutropenic child with cancer!

  30. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ nancy Ahh yes, good ole’ Doctor House.

  31. robin2

    And have you ever noticed the kind of machines they have at the bedside for IV pumps? I have seen feeding pumps and morphine pumps used. I also like not having side rails even on the bed let alone not up.

  32. monica

    I also love how the docs on House always break into the patient’s house to look for a cause to their illness. I mean, really?

  33. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ monica Absolutely!

  34. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ robin2 LOL. Never noticed that one.

  35. Sharon

    I watched “House” once only, and he had a team of doctors making phone calls to locate the patient’s family. Most of our doctors do not know HOW to dial a phone!! I told one of our doctors, “If that happened at our hospital, you would tell me to do it.”.
    He said, “And then you would palm it off on the Unit Secretary, and tell me that you are’t my private secretary!”

  36. Susan

    @Sharon: LOL, that REALLY made me laugh out loud. I am an old ER nurse and that is exactly how I talk to our Docs. When those young surgery residents come to the ER for consults, sometimes they need to be reminded “I don’t work for you, I work with you”!!!

  37. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Sharon Yeeeep.

  38. I laugh when the doctors take the patient to the test, and then sit and watch “their patient” in the MRI/CT scanner. Right! Like they would even know what to look for if it wasn’t for the radiology techs and radiologists interpreting for them.

  39. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Jeana Yet another good point.

  40. LaCrisha

    How about how doctors take patients to CT, MRI, surgeries, and such! Yeah right! That’s what nurses, aides, and transport are for!

  41. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ LaCrisha Absolutely!

  42. Pingback: Some thoughts on Hollywood medicine « My Strong Medicine

  43. coupleofchances Student

    I noticed in the one Grey’s Anatomy show I happened upon, while scrubbin-in, the surgeons did not don caps, wear masks, or cleaned their fingernails before scrubing. I did not watch the entire show, I’m sure there were even more fuax pas to write about. perhaps this is why the show is called Grey’s anatomy, a more healthy color derives using aseptic practices.

    • coupleofchances Student

      Sorry, I do know how to spell scrubbing. Please pardon my faux pas.

    • Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

      And that show is more touted for the ‘soap opera-like’ drama. LOL

  44. Tara_dear Caption Contest

    Actually, on ER, when a med student, intern, or emotional resident would say to shock the patient, a nurse or doctor almost always says “They’re in asystole” or “It’s a flatline.”

  45. zornowk

    I watched the first episode of ER up to where a rookie was closing a surgery on an infant, nicked the liver, which started bleeding, and s/he started trying to stitch it up, which, obviously resulted in more bleeding. When his/her superior came in, the baby was put on ECMO (hello- more heparin, anyone?)!

    • Nurse_Dee

      Also on the first episode of ER a boy fell through the ice in the lake and the Dr. said he had Hyperthermia. I stopped at that moment and never watched again.

  46. Smithteamracing RN

    Why is the nurses are young, beautiful, chesty females? Very few nurses I know have time to fool with a doctor.

  47. hawkins bsn RN

    I watched a episode of ER where a maintainance guy falls out of the ceiling and falls onto a guy whos heart had stopped. The patients heart starts to beat with no other injuries. REALLY!!!! not even a broken rib????? I stopped watching at that point.

    If you think TV is bad some of the movies are worse.

  48. tnnurse07

    I love how they never do CPR right

  49. killianyinstitut RN

    What about pts that stare at the IV tubing looking for that microscopic air bubble that will kill them. Hanging a piggyback and having them call you to say their IV is not “dripping” while being fixated on the main bag. But my fave is, immediately after receiving a IM they are ” out like a light” If only!

  50. beliefnhope Caption Contest

    I only watch medical shows when I need a good laugh. Doctors always being right there when you need them, turning off sinks with their hands, not washing hands or gloving before touching a patient, everyone being on heart monitors, everyone being miraculously better following being shocked and rarely needing to be intubated when they code, nurses having love connections with the doctors, all the nurses pleasant fit and perfect, doctors going in to tell a family bad news….all the misconceptions. Yet, people wonder why our health care system is such a mess! Thanks for this article and everyone’s comments…needed a good laugh this morning

  51. bugsy

    Haha! True,true,true and very true. I love how the doc’s yell out for Dextrose 5% or start an IV, P-l-e-a-s-e! I did see some doc’s attempt after no nurse could get a line, though.

  52. Annigogo

    I am in the UK and work as a Health Visitor – love this site !!
    What I find disappointing is in Greys the lack of nurse characters
    I don’t know if it will come to the US but we have just had a really good drama series called Frankie, which shows a real, caring feisty Community Nurse doing what we do !!

  53. htarceno RN

    And only on TV do doctors take vital signs, give po meds, and assist with getting a patient up.

    • April81171

      It makes me crazy that everyone is sleeping with everyone on Greys! And Mercy use to leave the hospital mid-shift nearly every episode! But House takes the cake with his policy breaking, lying and tricking patients, and going into patients homes for clues. Oh! And the bad CPR/codes on all the shows, every time…ugh! That being said, I confess to watching them all ;)

      • LisaB

        Only one I ever loved was House, smart ass got to say things we think about but professionalism dictates we can never say!!!

  54. FacettedDeer

    How about any show where they are starting an IV infusion and don’t prime the tubing?!? Then you watch a huge amount of air going straight into the vein and then the fluid… Death much? Saw that when my daughter was watching one of her shows.
    Or when they say their giving a PB of antibiotic and all they do is hand another bag of NS.
    Or when your family assumes you should be watching all of these shows because you’re a nurse, then you watch one with them and they kick you out for correcting every mistake lol

  55. waterfallrose

    I’ve had more than one patient state that they wanted a doctor like House. Really? That rude egotistical person? I would report such an abusive person to the patient advocate.

  56. AmandaC

    There are so many things, but I love medical shows. I’ve watched all of them and have never seen proper CPR. Also when Docs give meds, take vitals, console an upset pt, when the doc is always there, even in the middle of the night. Also there are so few nurse/doctor relationships. And one big thing is that there are never any other disciplines. you never see an OT/PT, social work, SLP etc.

  57. JennH0617

    My favorite is when it is a recent movie and the patient is in a high tech hospital and a high tech room and they still have the paper flip chart at the end of the bed. Or how about waking from a head injury with perfect makeup and hair? Or when all they do is put an O2 sensor on someone then yell “they’re crashing!” How do you know based on all you know they might just need sone O2, not the crash cart

  58. rb

    those shows drive me (and anyone in the room with me) crazy!
    side rails
    hand washing
    run a code and then leave the patient unattended in the room
    where are the nurses?
    throwing trash and snapping gloves to the floor
    these shows need a real nurse as a medical consultant

  59. waxxxy

    House – season 4, episode 16 says it all!!! Lets wake up someone on a heart-lung bypass machine so she can speak her last words or coherent sentences I should say?!! lolol Ill never forget that episode………

  60. stufunee

    i watched House briefly when it first started and even though I wan’t yet a nurse I knew it was all for TV. I’ve never seen any of the other shows. No way do such rare and unusual diagnoses/conditions/etc. turn up so often, aside from all the other things wrong. It’s getting to be like the “CSI effect” where juries expect there to be evidence of all kinds all over a crime scene and for there to be technology to get the results immediately and catch the bad guy within an hour. It’s just not real life there or in these hospital shows.

  61. anishbinky

    Thanks for the laughs. I agree- the siderails on TV shows left down with the bed high in the air drives me nuts. I imagine my incident report starts with “the bed was at an unsafe hight…”
    I admit I watch some of the dramatic shows, but my family wonders why because I just compare the show with reality. I think I do it to feel smarter. :-P

  62. Jendanford

    Sorry-don’t the majority of nurses and doctors use Littman stethoscopes rather than the cheap ones they use on these shows? Lol

  63. kathi

    Hey you got to admit they are ALL good for a much neede laugh, but the side rails thing dose drive me crazy. Never put them up except sometimes when the pt. Is dead.

  64. kathi

    Have been doing this for 38 yrs. HOW have I missed all that sex that has been going on with EVERYONE?

  65. AllyRN

    I always love the various ways they have patients hooked up to vents, the tubing and connections they use are so wrong so often! Or when the vent screen doesn’t cycle, just sits there like a screen shot? :D They are still entertaining, though my husband can’t stand to watch medical shows with me… I call the errors a ton! :D

  66. Michal Tingson

    My friend was laughing at me when we watched the newest Captain America movie because I actually shouted at the screen when they defibrillated one of the main characters when he was in NSR – and then acted upset when he “died”!!! I was like, “of COURSE he died! What did you EXPECT to happen when you defib someone in sinus rhythm?!” Mind you, they never checked for a pulse either, so they couldn’t even claim it was PEA.

  67. Night.Owl

    My favorite little mistake of Hollywood that only we would recognize is that the actors always put their stethoscopes in their ears backwards. Infections are also never cured in one day. A patient in septic shock isn’t speaking to you, and even if he is capable he isn’t speaking logically. A head wound no matter how small the laceration is pours blood and makes it seem much larger. And no, nurse’s do not have time to worry about your relationship, no matter how much we wish we had the time.

  68. denacarnal

    I love to see the patient who has suffered a a spinal injury or head trauma and is intubated and their chin is on their chest from all the pillows behind their head.

  69. nursecandee

    On TV, the bedrails are NEVER up!