Television takes up a lot (and sometimes too much) of our lives. It is estimated that more than 8 out of 10 Canadians aged 65 and over watch television, sometimes up to 40 hours a week, and the time devoted to this type of activity increases as we get older.(1)
You may know Doctors Meredith Grey, Gregory House, John Carter or Doug Ross. They are the main characters of the popular Grey's Anatomy, Dr. House and ER tv series that have become attached to millions of viewers of all ages since the early 1990s! These tv series take place in hospital settings, the characters use medical jargon and some editorial teams even hire doctors or other health professionals to ensure the validity of the information conveyed or the interventions performed.
Does exposure to these medical programs influence viewers' knowledge, perceptions and health behaviours?
What research tells us
An evidence synthesis examining 19 studies explored that question. Series examined in these studies were mainly ER, Grey's Anatomy and Dr House. These studies have examined viewers' knowledge, perceptions and behaviours on subjects as diverse as organ donation, cancer screening, sexually transmitted infections and heart disease.
Although no adults aged 65 or over participated in these studies, some general findings stand out:
• Watching fictional medical series had a negative influence on viewers' health knowledge, perceptions and/or behaviour in 11% of studies, a positive influence in 32% of studies, and a mixed influence in 58% .
• The way narratives are framed (for example, whether an issue is presented positively or negatively) can influence viewers' perceptions of the health issues being discussed.
• Some studies reveal that tv series exaggerate the occurrence of certain medical events, such as the mortality rate during hospitalization, which can contribute to a misperception of medical reality.
• Viewers are more likely to consult a health professional in connection with a topic covered in the program: for example, they will want to have their blood pressure taken following an episode dealing with hypertension or they will adopt a healthier lifestyle.
• Medical programs influence patients' perceptions of healthcare professionals and the healthcare system. If the doctors featured on the show are brave, skilled, and likeable, viewers will tend to associate those traits with their own doctor the next time they meet.
• Current studies do not allow us to determine the impact of these television experiences on the acquisition of long-term knowledge and the use of healthcare services.
Despite some mixed results, the authors of the review conclude that medical tv series can have an impact on individuals' knowledge of specific health topics, perceptions of health care and healthcare workers, and health behaviours. These conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.
And remember, these are TV shows that focus primarily on drama and entertainment, which sometimes require shortcuts. Viewers should not base their health-related decisions solely on what they see on medical tv series, and any health-related advice should be interpreted with extreme caution.
That said, there is no harm in having fun! And you, what is your favorite medical tv series?