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TV medical dramas: pure entertainment or a useful teaching tool?


Although medical schools have been around since the 18th century in North America, the way that medical students are taught continues to evolve. Technology is a valuable resource for almost any discipline, and in medicine, it is a resource that has helped to both facilitate and enhance the learning experience. It is then no surprise that educators have tested the idea of using television medical dramas as a teaching tool in the classroom.

Television and movies have become one of the most powerful communication tools in western culture, and medical students tend to fall right into the general targeted demographic of primetime medical dramas. To date, a number of researchers have used medical dramas to teach psychotherapy, communication and professionalism to medical trainees, and the results are quite promising. Specifically for professionalism, there seems to be great value in borrowing from a medium that aims to entertain audiences by creating realistic – albeit dramatic – life situations wrought with moral uncertainties. These difficult life situations are perfect for classes that aim to illicit ethical thinking and thoughtful reflections on the more interpersonal aspects of medicine.

But why bother with using medical dramas in the first place? If clinically relevant situations are what medical students need to learn about communication or professionalism, why not just follow the traditional method of creating written excerpts or medical situations?

The appeal of using medical dramas as a teaching tool seems to come from their ability to connect with students on an emotional level. When you watch a show regularly for a number of years, you are bound to develop some form of attachment to the fictional characters being depicted on screen. With this connection, it’s much easier to relate to their situations, and as a result, be able to practice empathy and generate insightful solutions to their professional dilemmas. This might also explain why producing material specifically for medical education – which may be more realistic and accurate, but with much lower production values and actors/characters students have no connection with – might not be as effective as borrowing from fictionalized material.

And even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the characters of a show, the dramatization that occurs on television can nevertheless still prove to be effective. At Queen’s University, Dr. Graeme Smith takes a unique approach to teaching obstetrics by using an episode of ER during one of his pre-clerkship lectures. The episode itself depicts a confident ER physician who misses a diagnosis of preeclampsia, only to have the patient return to the ER after collapsing in the parking lot following discharge. The obstetrics department also happens to be swamped that night, and despite warnings from his colleagues, the physician attempts to induce and deliver the baby in the ER to tragic ends.

Throughout the episode, Dr. Smith paused at various points to not only quiz us on various aspects of how preeclampsia and labour should be managed, but to identify both the mistakes and correct decisions that these fictionalized characters were making. At the same time, the tragic course that the episode follows made students reflect on the humanitarian aspects of medicine, which is often difficult to bring out in a classroom setting. Even though the class itself was meant to be didactic and cover a very specific topic, qualities of ethics and professionalism were all brought into play.

Being a student in his class, I can say that employing the ER episode made for an extremely powerful and effective learning experience. Being able to visualize the difficult decisions and mistakes made by physicians, all while engaging in discussions with the class at every turn was the most valuable part of the class. The fact that a didactic lecture on preeclampsia was embedded into all of this only added to the experience.

Using medical dramas as a teaching tool is definitely an intriguing concept. Although medical dramas are no longer the ratings dominators they once were, there is still a steady stream of new medical dramas being produced each year, with 10 new shows being created between 2011-2012 in the United States alone. As previous studies have shown, medical students are inherent viewers of these shows and the emotional bond they develop with television characters can be utilized for educational purposes. And despite all the inaccuracies that medical dramas are known to embody, even these mistakes can be utilized as a teaching tool in the correct setting.

Perhaps it’s due to medicine’s inherently human nature, but introducing drama into the classroom just seems to work.

Wilson Kwong is a medical student at Queen’s University. He would like to acknowledge Dr. Graeme Smith (Queen’s University) for reviewing and providing feedback on this article.

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3 comments

  1. Ali B

    How many medical dramas involve health practitioners other than doctors or nurses? I would be very concerned if practitioners were learning health culture norms from shows like Grey’s Anatomy. Healthcare is delivered by more than just doctors and nurses but unfortunately this is not well represented in popular medical dramas.

    • Linda B

      I would in fact suggest that in medical dramas health care is provided disproportionately by physicians (I don’t know the last time I saw a nurse start the IV…) However, I thing the point stands. It can be difficult for learners to understand the sheer magnitude of the decisions they make and the potential emotional fallout. Patients rarely behave the way the textbook makes it sound….and we rarely go from one person to another rather balance a multitude of complex cases at one time. As someone who has taught learners in SIM lab settings I entirely understand Mr. Kwong’s point, and think that Dr. Smith is certainly onto something….I certainly know that we all debate the finer points of the medical dramas anyway – why not use it as a teaching tool. Even if it is to point out that it is incredibly rare that any allied health care members are present in a room and what a valuable asset they are to the system overall.

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