TV Medicine vs. (My) Real-Life Medicine


What’s better than sexy doctors saving lives? Nothing, obviously. If you’re not lucky enough to be married to one, as I am, you can always get your fix through the magic of TV medical dramas. Next month Steven Soderbergh brings us The Knick, a 10-episode Cinemax miniseries set in the early 1900s at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital. The Knick looks gory, dark and creepy—usually deal breakers for me. But I’ll make an exception in this case, and not just because it stars Clive Owen: Being married to a doctor has changed my understanding of many things, the most important of which, of course, is TV. Here are my four favorite medical shows, and why.

Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s follows a team of surgical residents at Seattle Grace Hospital, and has thus been useful in explaining Dr. Husband’s career, since most laypeople aren’t sure what residency means. I used to be a fan of the show, but during my husband’s four years of medical school the shine wore off—every time a Grey’s couple snuck off to make out, I was reminded that the same temptations must turn up at med school. Now that he’s three years into his residency and I know what his colleagues get up to, Grey’s Anatomy seems fairly realistic—at least when it comes to playing doctor in the call room.

In other respects, however, the show is pretty phony. According to Dr. Brian Goldman, Grey’s and other medical dramas depict far more optimistic outcomes of procedures than is accurate. For example, CPR saves just 12 percent of patients in the real world; on Grey’s it’s 47 percent and on ER a whopping 68 percent.


The other day I watched the first episode of Scrubs again. What a trip! Scrubs starts on the first day of residency (much like Grey’s Anatomy), and focuses on internal medicine resident Dr. John Dorian. Watching J.D. navigate the switch from low-stakes, comradely med school to trial-by-fire residency hit close to home. I found myself empathizing with J.D. far more than I did the first time around. Back then I thought the Scrubs docs were doofuses and that such goofery was unrealistic for people with MDs. Now I know better. Dr. Husband says he likes that J.D. and the other characters try hard to be good physicians but are also human beings who sometimes make mistakes—just like real doctors.


Dr. Husband loves House. I don’t, but I understand why he’s so keen. As a resident practicing under his attending physicians’ licenses, Dr. Husband gets all the work and little glory. Naturally, he and his colleagues sometimes feel frustrated and demoralized. So what could be better than a show about a weird social outcast who not only gets away with uttering caustic cut-lows but also consistently diagnoses obscure diseases no one else understands? Dr. Husband says the portrayal of ailments on House is pretty accurate, and the way the data is presented is scientifically appropriate. I say, “Hey, can we watch something else?”


Although Dr. Husband does come home now and then with a good story, more often than not the “emergencies” he sees aren’t of the thrilling, dramatic quality of those on TV. Turns out, life is full of generalized back pain and babies with high fevers, and treating gunshot wounds loses its allure quickly. For those of us missing John Carter and George Clooney’s dreamy Dr. Ross, Netflix has the whole series on DVD.

What are your favorite medical shows? If by chance you want to know how accurate they are, let me know and I’ll ask the Dr.!

Photo courtesy of Everett