Television medical dramas and movies set in hospitals offer entertaining, nonstop action and the occasional scene featuring doctors and nurses sneaking into supply closets together between surgeries. But how accurate are these shows anyway?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view!), real-life nurses say TV shows like Grey's Anatomy and Chicago Med, and films like Flatliners, often stretch the truth. We talked with nursing professionals about six major issues they have with nursing shows and movies.
1. Doctors on TV Often Perform Nurses' Duties
Doctors on popular TV shows often perform nurses' duties like administering medications, blood products, and chemotherapy. Tracy Jones-Darnell, a faculty member for Walden’s University’s RN-BSN program, explains that in real life the physician orders the medication, "then the pharmacy fills the prescription and sends it to the appropriate unit, and finally, the nurse administers the oral or injectable medication to the patient."
On TV, she has seen physicians administering medications, blood products, and chemotherapy — all tasks nurses typically perform.
"As a registered nurse for 25 years, it is frustrating to see the show depict physicians performing aspects of patient care that nurses perform routinely," says Jones-Darnell.
2. Nurses in Shows Perform Duties Outside Their Specialty
Jones-Darnell goes on to mention that some TV shows even get emergency nursing procedures wrong. That's right — those thrilling, chaotic scenes from the ER are often misleading or inaccurate.
"Each episode is about patients being treated, saved, and then discharged, all while in the emergency department," says Jones-Darnell.
In reality, emergency nurses assess patients, and treatment takes place in an applicable unit, not the ER. Jones-Darnell feels that medical dramas mislead viewers and dismiss the impact of nurses working outside of the ER.
"I feel this has glamorized emergency nursing to students in nursing school and minimizes the importance of nurses on other specialized units,"" she states.
3. Medical Equipment Is Used Incorrectly on TV
Registered nurse Sandra Crawley offers several examples of TV and movie nurses using medical equipment incorrectly, such as:
- Nasal cannulas "not hooked up correctly or upside down"
- Suction tubing "being used as an airway"
- Oxygen tubing "used as an IV," and, perhaps the worst example:
- Manual defibrillators (paddles) used to shock dead or flatlined patients, which, on TV, "always revives the patients and they live," says Crawley. "Sorry, it doesn't work that way."
4. Emergency Procedures Are Used Inaccurately
TV and movie medical action often takes place in the emergency room, at the scene of an accident, or in an ambulance. Jones-Darnell and Crawley cite numerous examples of inaccurate emergency procedures.
"One of the biggest pet peeves nurses see is incorrect codes being done, especially CPR," Crawley explains. She cites a TV episode in which EMTs pull a drowning victim out of the water, check his vitals, and say, "He has a pulse."
"Nurses who are watching are thinking, 'Oh, good, a heartbeat,'" says Crawley. "That is, until the actors start doing chest compressions. Wait, what? Pretty sure pushing on the patient's chest will ultimately screw up his already-beating heart rhythm."
Typical goofs include:
As Crawley's example describes, nurses on TV shows use CPR on patients with heartbeats. Real-world CPR revives and saves thousands of patients who have stopped breathing or whose hearts have stopped.
TV programs show medical staff using paddles to shock patients who have suffered serious and irreversible cardiac arrest or asystole. "You can't shock asystole," Crawley says. "It does nothing, it is a non-shockable rhythm."
TV medical personnel incorrectly try to stop patients' movements or put something in their mouths to prevent them from swallowing their tongues. Correct care includes removing people and hard or sharp objects from the patient's immediate area and turning the individual onto their side.
Using Adrenaline Shots for Opioid OD
Movies that depict patients overdosing on opioids often show medical professionals injecting them in the chest with adrenaline. In reality, adrenaline injections are rarely used in overdose situations.
5. The Steamy Nurse-Doctor Relationships
TV shows and movies invariably feature nurses and doctors groping each other in janitors' closets. Like others who spend a lot of time at work, medical professionals develop relationships with their coworkers. However, it happens less often in real life than on the screen, and definitely not in between medical procedures.
"I mean, come on," adds Crawley, "We are too busy and too tired from running labs, walking our patients, and are probably covered in unknown fluid from doing bedside care to even think about having sex."
6. Where is All the Paperwork?
While nurses perform many hands-on duties like administering medication and hooking up IVs, keeping accurate records or "charting" carries equal importance. Patients' charts are legal records and include medical notes, insurance information, and accreditation details.
TV programs rarely show nurses updating charts because it doesn't make for exciting viewing. Real-life nurses, however, spend a lot of time on the task.
To Sum it Up:
Nurses watch televised versions of their workdays, but with a grain of salt.
"Grey's Anatomy is a great show, but oh so unrealistic," says Crawley.
Their advice to viewers: these entertaining, fast-paced, and dramatic examples should be viewed as fiction, not fact.
Meet Our Contributors
Tracy Jones-Darnell, EdD, MSN, RN, CNE, NE-BC
Tracy Jones-Darnell, EdD, MSN, RN, CNE, NE-BC, is a faculty member for Walden University's RN-BSN program.
Sandra Crawley, RN, BSN
Sandra Crawley, BSN, RN, is a charge nurse in a family birth center and serves as a medical consultant for MomLovesBest.com. She provides medical expertise and care for expectant mothers and their newborn babies. Crawley takes pride in knowing she can be of service to families during this memorable and life-changing time.
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