16 Things TV Doctors Always Get Wrong

6 minute read

By John Hardy

All those crises! All those sirens! All that panic! The miraculous, life-and-death rush. TV medical dramas are fun to watch but not accurate. Fortunately, you can learn everything you need to know about TV medical myths with a search online.

Usually decked-out in full or partial scrubs, they sure look like real nurses and doctors, don’t they? Whatever they’re saying, it’s almost always impressive. But here are 16 common TV doctor tropes that just don’t work that way in real life.

1. Backward stethoscopes abound

It may look more doctor-ish backwards, and it certainly adds a look of hospital-ish urgency, but many TV and movie doctors and nurses are wearing their stethoscopes backwards. (The stethoscope is the one located just beside the open pocket filled with tongue depressors and a thermometer they never use.)

Real stethoscopes rely on an airtight seal in order to transmit body sounds from the patient. So the flat side that gets pressed onto the chest or back of the patient should hang on the doctor’s or nurse’s chest — not facing out toward the camera — for ease of use.

2. The charts are meaningless

Regardless of what the TV medical staff say when they look at “the charts,” the x-rays, charts and scan results on TV usually bear no resemblance to the condition the TV doctors and nurses are talking about.

Even though all medical dramas have at least one doctor advising the script-writers, they are still pretty loose with the facts and the truth and many of the diseases are wild (but impressive-sounding) fiction.

3. The flatline myth just won’t die

Few things are more standard fare in medical dramas than the dramatic scene with the camera focused on the bedside monitor, usually with the buzzer going.

Big trouble. Panic ensues. Nurses and doctors come rushing. The patient has…flatlined!

Real doctors and nurses say the real flatline is never as flat as it looks in the movies. If it does look like that, it means the machine is not connected.

4. Paddles and jolts? Not exactly

The TV patient is rushed into Emergency. Their blood pressure is dropping. They have stopped breathing. The heart monitor shows a scary visual: our old friend the flatline.

Everyone is panicking! Someone grabs a defibrillator and shouts: “Clear!”

The patient jerks wildly and is shocked back to life. Phew!

Wrong! Defibrillators do send an electric shock to the heart but, unlike in the dramatized TV version, they don’t cause the patient to jump up in bed. Also, shocking the heart never works when a person is “flatlining,” a condition called asystole.

A defibrillator is used to correct an irregular heart rhythm, not to kickstart a heart that isn’t beating.

5. Freezing severed fingers isn’t helpful

It’s a gory emergency. Whenever someone loses a finger (or a toe, or insert your favorite digit here) in a movie, putting the severed part on ice – which is almost definitely contained inside a picnic cooler – is the first thing they do before rushing to the hospital.

Wrong! In real emergencies, cool is good to keep it fresh, but freezing would cause irreparable cell damage, especially in cases of direct contact with the ice.

Best to keep the severed part clean, crank the A/C, and head to the hospital pronto.

6. Births usually aren’t a dramatic medical emergency

Sometimes right in the ambulance, on a gurney being rushed down the hall or in any number of unlikely locations, movie medical staff spring into action and help the woman huff, grunt, push, and give birth. Usually there’s at least one dramatic, life-threatening complication along the way. It’s a familiar TV medical emergency.

While giving birth is without a doubt a very painful experience, in most cases it’s not nearly as dangerous and torturous as TV makes it look.

About 95 percent of all births happen without any complications and four out of the remaining five percent have minor problems, not crises.

7. Declaring the dead is a little more complicated

“Sorry, there’s nothing we could do.”

Although in real life, only doctors can usually officially declare someone dead, the rules don’t apply in movies. Nurses do it. Ambulance drivers do it!

Also, trying to feel the pulse, (a procedure not used anymore to determine whether someone is dead or not) poking the person or even just looking at them without even trying to bring them back just does not happen except in cases of “injuries incompatible with life.”

We’ll leave you to imagine what that means.

8. The defibrillator rub is not a thing

Few TV medical visuals show more urgent action than giving those defibrillator paddles a rub while the machine charges up.

Looks good, but it’s pure fiction! It’s not only never done, it is completely pointless, useless and may even damage the equipment. Sure does look cool, though.

9. Resuscitation via CPR is difficult, violent, and rarely successful

“Bringing someone back from the edge of death” scenes in movies are probably not only the most frequent fake medical scenes but also the most fake. Here’s why:

First of all, most CPR in movies is done way too slowly, and way too softly. The real ratio between chest compression and ventilation is 30:2 for an adult, not 3:1 or 3:2 like on TV.

Secondly, most reanimation scenes in movies involve a few minutes of half-hearted CPR before the patient is declared dead. In real life? Resuscitation can take at least 45 minutes and can last several hours.

Though lots of medical dramas let the credits roll right after a dramatic death, the same shows also rely on just-in-time resuscitations before or after commercial breaks. In reality, flatlines can NOT be solved with paddles. CPR is rarely successful. And in best-case, real life scenarios, hospital resuscitations are successful only about five percent of the time.

10. Blood, yes! Other yuckies, no.

On the odd occasion, the audience hears about a patient peeing on the floor, or sees a doctor get a little bit of blood on them. It’s supposed to impress upon us the “un-sexy” side of TV doctoring.

Sure, a bloodstained shirt or a patient peeing on the floor is a little gross, but they’re nothing compared to any of the real, yuckier facts of hospital life: bowel movements, vomiting and other nasties. Somehow these just don’t make for good TV.

11. Hygiene is a serious concern

We might see TV doctors washing their hands and slipping into rubber gloves, but that’s the extent of their concern for sanitary practices. A lot of what TV doctors and nurses do is dirty, risky and unsanitary.

Surgery with no mask. Surgery without an eye guard. Not wiping the port before hooking up the IV. The IV in the arm, but the drip bag is empty. Hospital hygiene rules would never allow it.

12. In real life, doctors don’t do everything

On TV, most surgeons (who always wear green scrubs, for some reason) can magically perform every procedure, emergency or routine, right there in the hospital. No need for specialists. The sheer variety of grab bag surgeries in different specialties that doctors perform is something you’ll only see on TV.

Doctors treat any and every condition, and they also happen to be experts in operating MRI scanners, analysing blood samples in the lab and performing complex surgery!

Whatever happened to the radiologist? The lab technician? The nurse, pharmacist or specialist surgeon? Besides, in real hospitals, patients see the nurses much more often than the doctors.

13. At the end of the shift, everyone doesn’t just go out for beers

It’s an amazing coincidence. Every TV resident, intern and nurse leaves the hospital at the same time –usually to go to a bar together.

It’s not only unlikely or impossible for the schedule to work out this way, but most medical professionals leave their shift exhausted and are invariably careful with booze and even coffee, conscious about the impact it may have on work the next day.

14. The schizophrenic myth is pernicious

Unfortunately, stereotypical schizophrenics make for melodramatic TV. Mental illness gets a bad rap, even in medical shows. To keep things simple for the audience, schizophrenic characters either have a “split personality” or are “blood-thirsty psychopaths.”

In reality, people with schizophrenia are rarely violent, and do not have a “split personality.”

Split personality disorder is something altogether different and is steeped in controversy; many professionals don’t believe it even exists.

15. Pulling out the blade is a terrible idea

Having just survived a terrible explosion, Jack lies wounded on the floor. Without feeling the pain, he realises that a sharp piece of metal has been impaled in his side. The action hero steels himself, grunts, and pulls it out.

NEVER DO THIS. It’s probably the worst thing to do. Trying to pull out anything bigger than a large splinter is likely to cause much more bleeding. Like, we’re talking potentially fatal bleeding here.

16. Tourniquets don’t work that way

Applying a tourniquet above or below a wound is something you see in movies almost every time someone has a bleeding wound that is more than a little scratch.

In reality, this procedure is highly controversial among experts since it not only damages the affected limb severely, but when a body part is cut off from blood supply, toxic substances begin to form quickly and when the blood flow is restored, it can be life-threatening.

John Hardy