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TV Trauma Care Isn’t Real, But Its Effect on Patient Satisfaction Might Be

Imagine if your trauma unit was like a television show: Most patients would be rushed to a surgical suite, about a fourth of patients would suffer dramatic deaths, and half of the survivors would leave the hospital in less than a week, no matter the extent of their injuries.

While laughable to veteran emergency room staff, a new study published in Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open suggests that television dramas — such as “Grey's Anatomy,” described above — also might mislead viewers about trauma care, including how quickly patients recover after serious injuries.

That raises the question of the effect on patient satisfaction surveys when real life falls short of what they expect. The repercussions are significant, adds the study, led by Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center researchers, because quality initiatives and performance-related pay are linked to patient satisfaction scores.

“In the present study, we have demonstrated how the representation of trauma patients on television dramas differs from reality, particularly with respect to recovery after injury,” the researchers write. Those findings led them to speculate that patients’ expectations after an injury “may be distorted by this unrealistic depiction of injury on television.”

For their project, researchers compared 290 fictional patients in 269 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy — the television series’ first 12 seasons — with real-life injuries sustained by 4,812 patients whose records were available in the 2012 National Trauma Databank.

They determined that the patients in “Grey’s Anatomy” suffered death rates three times those of real-life patients — 22% vs. 7%. In addition, nearly three-quarters of the TV patients were rushed to surgery — something that happened only 25% of the time among the databank patients.

Another significant difference was that 6% of the “Grey’s Anatomy” trauma survivors had to be transferred to a long-term care facility, when that outcome occurred in 22% of the real patients. Perhaps most misleading, according to the study team, half of the fictional patients spent less than a week in the hospital after traumatic injury, although only about 20% of actual trauma patients could be released that quickly.

“Although realism is an integral element to the success of a television drama set in a contemporary workplace, be it a hospital or police department, the requirements for dramatic effect demand a focus on the exceptional rather than the mundane,” the authors point out, adding, “Hence, American television medical dramas tend to rely on storylines that feature rare diseases, odd presentations of common diseases, fantastic and/or quirky injuries, and mass casualty events, all framed within a ‘realistic’ representation of a typical US hospital.”

The bottom line, according to their comparison: “Divergence of patient expectations from reality may, in fact, contribute to lower levels of satisfaction,” study authors conclude.