Real-world medicine is nothing like “Gray’s Anatomy”

I’ve learned the hard way this week why they call what physicians do “practicing medicine.” Without a lot of tests, a thousand questions, and a lot of watching and waiting, they have no idea what is wrong with many of the patients they see. Every person’s body is a different and unique combination of strengths, weaknesses, anomalies and unknowns that make accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment anything but straightforward. Often it’s just a matter of guessing among several options and hoping for the best.

Television doctors ruin our expectations of real-world doctors by giving each patient their complete attention, ordering tests that are done right away, then sitting there with the tech looking at the MRI screen or the CT scan or the EKG or the X-rays and determining on the spot precisely what is wrong with the patient and how they are going to fix it. Which they do, by the end of the hour, every week. They don’t perform surgeries that fail to fix the problem. They don’t order test after test looking for something they can’t find. They never doubt that they have the power to make everything okay, and they make us believe it, too.

Damn you, McDreamy, you make it look so easy and you look so good doing it!

Damn you, McDreamy, you make it look so easy and you look so good doing it!

TV doctors never leave the families hanging—at least not for one moment longer than they have to before they walk out of the operating room, strip off their skullcaps and deliver the good news to the anxious family with a tired smile and a handshake. In real life, they simply disappear after the surgery and good luck finding them anywhere in the hospital for the next 24 hours. They talk a lot about possibilities, make a lot of guesses, and run a lot of tests, but they really don’t know what caused this symptom or that complication, let alone how they’re going to fix it, except to “wait and see” some more.

What you don’t see on TV is the seemingly endless waiting, sitting and pacing by the patient’s family members and friends as the hours drag by—hours of surgery, hours of recovery, hours of tests, hours of expecting the surgeon to answer his page. The meals missed, the bad coffee consumed, the snatches of sleep caught in a bony chair in an empty room, the endless worry and fatigue of the loved ones who can do nothing but wait and see what the next test shows, wait for the attending to look at the chart, wait for the surgeon to check in and provide any kind of evaluation or prognosis or even answers to their own thousand questions, all of which really boil down to just these two: 1) What has happened? and 2) What is going to happen?

Television medical shows are not about the patients who are sick and the people who love them, they’re about the doctors who are depicted as miracle workers and heroes when in real life they’re overworked, overtired, ordinarily fallible human beings who simply don’t have the time to give any one of their patients their full attention, let alone care about their patients’ families. You also never see on TV the family and friends at a distance, their cell phones never out of their hands day or night as they wait for a call or a text to tell them what is going on with someone they love 500+ miles away. Nothing resolves in an hour, a day, even a week. Questions are not answered. Fears are not assuaged. And the waiting goes on and on.

Real life medicine can never be as clean, quick, simple and unambiguous as television medicine, but nevertheless one wishes that in real life there were less practicing of medicine and more precise delivery of medical care.

 as they say in the movies, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”



4 thoughts on “Real-world medicine is nothing like “Gray’s Anatomy”

  1. How right you are! I was an RN for 20 years, more or less, and medicine isn’t an exact science; never was and might never be until we enter the Star Trek realm of tricorders that will diagnose and treat in one fell swoop.

    • I want the tricorders! And the dermal regenerators! And bone knitters! And the replicators! Most of all, I want the ability to beam my body from one point to another in an instant instead of driving all damned day to get there! Bring on the Star Trek science, I’m all for it! 😉

  2. “Real life medicine can never be as clean, quick, simple and unambiguous as television medicine.”

    Nor as ethical.

    Did you know that on a side street in Washington DC there is an office with the innocuous name of the National Practitioner Data Bank?

    They happen to keep track of misbehaving doctors.

    Any idea how many doctors they have added to their files since 1985?


    You might want to go back and count all those zeros.

    Three years ago we wrote the book “America’s Dumbest Doctors,” which listed thousands of cases of serious doctor shenanigans. Between that time and today, 7,102 physicians (that we know of) have managed to step into deep legal doo-doo, because they just couldn’t seem to locate their moral compass. 7,102. In THREE years.

    So if it’s ‘reality’ in medicine you really want, forget TV. Take a peek instead at the MedicalMiscreant website.

    It just might save your life.

    • I was not aware of this; thank you for the information. I am experiencing real medicine right now, which is why I’m kind of upset. I am not saying that any practitioner in this story, real or fictitious, is being a medical miscreant, just that things are not going the way we would ideally like for them to go. You know, all wrapped up in 50 minutes or less. 😉

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