What TV is Doing Right in Punishing Fictional Medical Professionals

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What TV is Doing Right in Punishing Fictional Medical Professionals

If you’ve ever stayed overnight in a hospital, you know that the setting is far from the fictionalized versions on television: no plucky intern willing to scour the earth for a cure, no grumpy genius doctor capable of diagnosing even the rarest disease, and certainly no nurse who routinely tricks insurance companies to keep you from paying out of pocket.

For someone like me, who has felt as though the hospital was their version of Cheers at some point, the most gratifying moment in TV hospital situations and real ones is when medical professionals are held accountable for their mistakes and mistreatments. Which, let’s be honest, happens far too often. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University showed that newer doctors weren’t relaying basic information to patients, such as their specialty or an explanation of a procedure. Even the simple act of sitting down to explain goes a long way in the comfort of a patient, making it easier for both parties to communicate.

Comparing my own situations to those on television has taught me that nothing is more valuable than a responsible medical professional. Even TV, known to blow things out of proportion or misrepresent many professions, gets that right. In fact, in that way, sometimes I wish my medical experiences were more like those depicted on TV.

When Doctors Are Dishonest

What it Looks Like on TV

On an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey, current head of general surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, switched a placebo out for the drug during a blind clinical trial to benefit the patient, who happened to be the chief of medicine’s wife. Co-worker Alex found out and spilled the beans to a senior doctor, and Meredith got fired by the hospital board. The clinical trial was shut down, and all the other patients who were desperately waiting for the drug weren’t allowed access.

What it’s Like in Real life

My gynecologist put me into a clinical trial for Endometriosis, but downplayed my Crohn’s Disease symptoms during the intake interview. I wasn’t sure why, but I went along with it because I trusted him, and my symptoms had been in remission for several months. Three months into the trial, after missing days of work for studies and completing daily surveys, I wound up in the hospital for a Crohn’s-related issue. After being discharged, I returned to my gynecologist’s office to find that I had been kicked out of the trial, right before the new drug would be tested. The director told me that no one was allowed with Crohn’s Disease, and was unsympathetic to the fact that I was unaware of this rule in the beginning. I was turned away from the office without any further assistance, and my pain management was swiftly exterminated. In the end, I was the one punished, yet, because I had to go through so many different hoops, the misinforming doctor probably got off scot-free.

When Doctors Almost Kill You

What it Looks Like on TV

On Nurse Jackie, Jackie is an Emergency Room nurse who is addicted to narcotic pain medication. In the sixth season, Jackie accidentally administers a fatal dose of insulin to a patient while high on OxyContin. Luckily, another nurse is close by to save the patient’s life, but just barely. Jackie is told she must submit to a drug test or lose her job, and ultimately is fired.

What it’s Like in Real Life

I have an anaphylactic reaction to an antibiotic called Ciprofloxacin, which means I am deathly allergic. My eyes swell shut, hives take over my body, and my throat closes almost immediately, which is why I must wear a special red bracelet when I’m admitted to the hospital. Despite the bracelet and “No Cipro” in big letters on the white board at the foot of my bed, I caught a nurse just before he connected an IV bag of it to my injection site. When I pulled my arm away sharply and pointed to the board, he laughed at the mistake and shrugged it off like it was no big deal.
Sadly, this wasn’t the only time my allergy was forgotten—I even had a doctor write out a prescription for Cipro immediately after discussing my anaphylactic reaction to the drug. This is not to say that all medical professionals are negligent, but they are human, and the current model of health care puts that kind of responsibility on the patient.

When Some Doctors Are Better Than Others

What it Looks Like on TV

In Private Practice, season one, episode two, Dr. Addison has a patient with severe pain, but can’t figure out the source. When she found out that previous doctors dismissed the patient’s pain, Dr. Addison confronted one of them, saying: “If it were one of my patients that was in that much pain, I would be busting my ass to find an answer.” Mic. Drop.

What it’s Like in Real life

When I first moved to Florida, I had to make an appointment with a primary care physician to continue my pain medication prescription. I only wanted my low-dose pain medication, but before I could finish explaining my symptoms, the doctor cut me off. She screamed at me for asking for pain medication and told me she only wrote that sort of prescription for patients with cancer. I left the office without any recourse for my intractable pain.

The upside to my negative experiences—and watching too much medical TV—is that I have learned to be a better advocate for myself, through the following ways.

1. Demand Transparency

Leanna Wen, M.D., Baltimore City Health Commissioner, created a campaign called Who Is Your Doctor to provide a resource for patients who want honest doctors. Dr. Wen says in her TED talk “What Your Doctors Don’t Want You to Know” that providing transparency fosters trust, which is essential for better communication between patient and doctor.

2. Arm Yourself with Knowledge

Even if your only experience with the medical field is fictional, it pays to stay informed of recent clinical trials or studies. Sources like Safe Patient Project provide consumer reports on medical errors, connections to patient activists and other resources regarding patient advocacy. AllTrials is a movement that calls for all outcomes of clinical trials be registered and made accessible to the public. Patients can also check Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Open Payments program for volunteered data from doctors and training hospitals on what pharmaceutical companies are paying. For instance, if you are being prescribed something that is causing adverse reactions, but your doctor insists you continue treatment, it could be helpful to know if the manufacturer of the drug is reimbursing them in any way. Another way to double-check a certain treatment is to read any related clinical trials or patient reviews on unbiased websites like Ask a Patient.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Seek a Second Opinion

Studies show that people aren’t comfortable getting second opinions, even when they’ve been mistreated by a doctor. Any reputable doctor should welcome a second opinion.

Diana-Ashley Krach is a full-time freelance author and journalist whose work can be found on EverydayFeminism, Ravishly, HelloGiggles, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, DAME, SheKnows and more.