Emergency medicine isn’t just one of the highest-paying medical specialties. It’s also one of the branches of medicine most frequently depicted on TV shows and in other media. If you go into a career in emergency medicine expecting it to be like what you see on television, then you may not get what you expected. Among the biggest differences between ER doctors in real life and on television is that real emergency medicine physicians see a greater volume of patients, but not for as long a time or for as extensive medical needs. Another noticeable difference is that work in this field isn’t as cinematic or as glamorous as you would think from what’s shown on the screen.
Seeing More Patients, in Fewer Roles, for Shorter Spans of Time
One common mistake in television portrayals of hospitals is that the same doctor performs numerous functions in a patient’s care, according to St. George’s University. TV medical dramas would have aspiring ER doctors believe that, after you see a patient in the emergency department, you will then see them throughout their hospital stay, be the one reviewing their tests results and even perform their non-emergency surgeries.
That notion works in fiction, where it allows the characters and the viewers to get to see how the patient’s story ends, but it doesn’t reflect real life. After a patient is admitted to the hospital, other doctors in other specialties, from radiology to anesthesiology to general surgery, provide care to that patient in their area of expertise. The ER doctor stays in the emergency room, where, over the course of their shift, they may see a couple dozen more patients. Just as the ER doctor isn’t a patient’s only physician, that patient is just one of the many patients an emergency room doctor will be responsible for – although you wouldn’t guess that from what you see on TV.
That said, what TV shows get partially right is that ER doctors perform many different tasks in the service of caring for a patient. Examining the patient, evaluating their medical condition and needs, ordering diagnostic tests, administering blood transfusions and intubating a patient who can’t breathe on their own are just some of the tasks an emergency medicine physician may do to stabilize a patient, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA reported. However, your scope of work is usually limited to the ER. Real emergency room doctors don’t have time to wander the hospital halls looking for patients to treat. They’re already busy taking care of a multitude of patients in the emergency department.
Even in the emergency department, ER doctors may work alongside specialists, such as a cardiologist for a heart attack or a trauma surgeon for a serious injury.
Less Glamorous (and Dramatic) in Real Life Than on TV
Would you really want to watch a TV show that presented the real “typical” day of an ER doctor? Although the field can be exciting, it probably wouldn’t make for the most entertaining television program. If you think of your favorite medical TV dramas, “drama” is the key word.
Medical ordeals can certainly be gripping stories in and of themselves, but what keeps viewers watching episodes, season after season, is the added drama. You get a lot less of the out-there plotlines, exaggerated behavior of characters and juicy relationship development working in a real emergency department than you do watching actors in fictional ones.
This discrepancy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Much of what makes these shows interesting to watch would also make working in their fictional hospital environments less than appealing. Although television producers may achieve dramatic effect when their stories “exaggerate and vilify” doctors, this kind of aggressive or eccentric attitude isn’t common in real emergency rooms, according to the University of Washington Medicine. It’s true that doctors and other healthcare professionals may occasionally snap under the pressure of working in an emergency department. However, a physician who routinely screamed at their colleagues or who consistently disregarded hospital protocols and orders would be a distraction and a liability – definitely not someone other doctors would want to work with.
It’s not just the relationships and plots that are dramatized in TV emergency rooms, but the amount of blood shown on screen, as well. In fact, modern television shows are less accurate, in terms of the goriness of medical procedures, than those produced in and before the 1980s, when Physician’s Advisory Committee (PAC) on Television, Radio and Motion Pictures helped make media portrayals of medical matters more realistic, STAT News reported.
Despite being eager to show plenty of blood, TV shows rarely capture the reality of the unpleasant smells and the messes of bodily fluids that real ER doctors encounter regularly.