Thursday, April 01, 2010
It is likely no surprise to regular viewers of the television medical dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House, M.D.” that bioethical issues and the conflict they create are frequent components of the storylines. These programs aim to entertain, and the drama inherent in contentious bioethical issues seems a natural fit. Furthermore, these programs aim for realism, frequently employing physicians as consultants to check their medical facts. This combination of realism and frequency raises concern that these medical dramas have the potential to affect viewers’ beliefs and perceptions of bioethics. In fact, previous studies have demonstrated this phenomenon in other areas, including organ transplantation and obesity.
With that background, I, along with Dr. Ruth Faden and Dr. Jeremy Sugarman at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, aimed to systematically describe the bioethical and professionalism content of one season each of the widely watched medical dramas. While we would have liked to include “E.R.,” it wasn’t available on DVD for the same time frame. In addition, “Nip/Tuck” and “Scrubs” were excluded because of their dissimilarity to the shows analyzed. Our goal was simply to document the bioethical and professionalism content of these two programs as a starting point for a discussion about their possible impact on the perceptions and beliefs of the general public, as well as their utility as a tool in the education of medical and nursing students.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that both “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House, M.D.” are rife with depictions of bioethical issues and egregious deviations from the norms of professionalism. We identified 179 depictions of bioethical issues, which we separated into 11 categories, of which the top three were consent, ethically questionable departures from standard practice, and death and dying. We also identified a total of 396 deviations from normal professional interactions, classifying those into categories of “respect,” “sexual misconduct,” “integrity and responsibility,” and “caring and compassion.” Most of the professionalism incidents were negative, which is less striking when one considers the fact that these programs are more akin to soap operas than documentaries. Importantly, we did not try to evaluate the possible impact, whether positive, negative, or neither, on viewers of these programs. Rather, we hope that our study will provide the groundwork for other studies assessing exactly that.
I’d personally like to encourage any interested readers to take a look at the full text of our article, “Bioethics and professionalism in popular television medical dramas,” which is available in the April issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. In addition, more information about the wide variety of ethical issues investigated by the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics can be found at our website, http://www.bioethicsinstitute.org. Finally, more information about media and health can be found at the Kaiser Family Foundation website.
Thanks for letting us share our work with the thoughtful readers of the Women’s Bioethics Blog!