TV Medical Dramas Not On Board With Health Reform


Oh no! It looks like medical-mystery shows like House aren't realistic—and, even worse, might give viewers impressions about health care that make Obama's favored health reforms even more difficult.

Media analysts say medical dramas like "House," as well as glowing news accounts of high-tech medicine, encourage patients to expect that the latest devices, drugs and other treatments will yield miraculous results. The downside of tests and treatments, such as their high costs and possible side effects, get less air time. 

"There's a real disjuncture between the model [for health care that] policymakers are trying to push compared to T.V.," says Joe Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Turow's forthcoming book, an update to his 1989 volume "Playing Doctor," will examine medical dramas from "Marcus Welby, M.D.," which debuted in 1969, to "House" and "Grey's Anatomy." Television has consistently portrayed medicine as an unlimited resource, he says. 

That message cuts against the one that President Barack Obama is trying to deliver: That the U.S. needs to save money by cutting unnecessary tests. Patients are "going to have to give up paying for things that don't make them healthier," he said during a July press conference. "I think that's the kind of change you want."

Really? You mean sometimes teevee writers like to exaggerate for dramatic effect? Say it isn't so! Next thing you know, court-watchers will complain that CSI and Law & Order don't portray criminal investigations realistically, and archeologists will fret that Indiana Jones has given all those impressionable young historical adventure lovers a false impression about relic-hunting. Erm, oh wait. Sigh. 

Yes, of course popular fictions color public perceptions of certain professions at the margins, but so what? Most pop culture isn't designed to inform, at least not in the way of a news article or a white paper, but to entertain. And thank goodness! Can you imagine, say, a "realistic" lawyer show? Hundreds of hours of tedious legal research, emailing, meetings, and note-taking? Same goes for medical dramas. Like the article says: "Advice such as 'watchful waiting' does not make for good storylines." As much as I admire realism in shows like The Wire, I also think it's overrated; for most people, real life is rather less thrilling than pop culture.

More to the point: Do we really need busybodies fretting over whether or not a fun scripted TV show bolsters the prospects of their political project? There's nothing wrong with politically attuned or even polemical fiction, nor with criticism that takes a work of fiction's inherent politics into account. All politics bears an imperial streak, but not everything in life ought to fall into its ugly realm, and I can't imagine that any culture—and in particular, any pop culture—that's been co-opted by the crude expansionism of the political world is better for it.