What we can learn about medicine from watching Grey’s Anatomy

When the popular TV hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy featured a story line about a patient diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL), Joyce Graff paid close attention. The Executive Director of the VHL Family Alliance watched as the surgeon onscreen discovers a large cyst on the patient’s pancreas, described as being in danger of rupturing”. Joyce described the scene:

“The TV surgeon removes a significant portion of the pancreas. But pancreatic cysts in VHL are almost never dangerous, and are not sufficient to warrant operating on the pancreas, which is the last organ you want to touch. Dr. Steven Libutti, one of the world’s experts in VHL in the pancreas, says he has NEVER seen a VHL associated pancreatic cyst in danger of rupturing, and described this scene as pure fiction.”

The potential inaccuracy of medical information presented on widely-watched hospital dramas (about 20 million viewers watch Grey’s Anatomy every week, for example) is a concern to Joyce – and should be to all of us.  But how much educational impact does a weekly visit to the fictional hospitals of Grey’s Anatomy or House or E.R. actually have on the average viewer?  And couldn’t we take advantage of our favourite TV docs to help raise awareness of serious real-life health issues? Continue reading