Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 1.22.29 PM

House. (Photo: IMDB)

‘House’ Fans Are Scared of the Wrong Diseases

• June 30, 2014 • 1:18 PM

House. (Photo: IMDB)

People who watch medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and House are more likely than non-watchers to be fatalistic about cancer and to underestimate the importance of chronic illnesses.

Have you heard of necrotizing fasciitis, better known by the horror-inducing name of flesh-eating bacteria? If so, chances are that you have never actually contracted the infection, but you’ve seen a recent episode of a medical television show about it. Even though necrotizing fasciitis is incredibly rare (estimates put it between 500 and 1,500 cases per year in the United States), the disease has reared its poisonous head on Grey’s Anatomy and House twice each.

Researchers have long studied the inaccurate portrayals of health care institutions on TV, and the results are worrying. They’ve found that people who watch medical shows do, in fact, learn about health issues from them and use that information to make health care decisions for their families.

Now, a new study by Jae Eun Chung of Howard University, published in the July issue of Human Communication Research, shows that the amount of TV medical drama people watch is associated with some inaccurate medical beliefs.

Medical drama fans were less likely to rate cancer and cardiovascular disease as important issues facing our society, compared to people who did not watch the TV shows.

Based on previous research showing that mortality rates of fictional patients on TV were higher than in real life, Chung hypothesized that medical drama watchers would feel more fatalistic about disease. With medical dramas’ propensity to highlight rare and fast-acting diseases rather than common, chronic illnesses in mind, Chung also hypothesized that medical drama watchers would underestimate the social importance of more common medical conditions.

The data was collected as part of the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey, an online survey with a nationally representative sample. The 11,555 respondents answered questions about their media consumption habits, health status, and beliefs about cancer. They were also asked to choose the three most important health problems facing the U.S. today.

Regardless of the respondents’ demographic factors, health status, and overall TV habits, Chung found that respondents who watched more medical dramas (Grey’s Anatomy, House, ER, and Strong Medicine were mentioned in the survey) were likely to hold fatalistic beliefs about cancer, such as “It seems like almost everything causes cancer,” and “There are so many recommendations about preventing cancer, it’s hard to know which ones to follow.”

Medical drama fans were also less likely to rate cancer and cardiovascular disease as important issues facing our society, compared to people who did not watch the TV shows.

Chung also found that more local TV news watching was associated with more fatalistic beliefs about cancer. The opposite was true of people who read newspapers or listened to radio news. It’s a point of concern because local TV watchers are “less educated and less affluent compared to national news audiences,” Chung writes.

The research doesn’t necessarily show that watching medical dramas causes inaccurate beliefs, but the results add important insight into the connections between television and public health. Past research has shown that health beliefs can change over time depending on TV depictions, so it might be time for public health advocates to petition Shonda Rhimes for a new show about the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet.

Bettina Chang
Associate Digital Editor Bettina Chang previously directed editorial content at HomeStyle and Real Estate Weekly. A Chicago native, she serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams, working to improve education outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students. Follow her on Twitter @bechang8.

More From Bettina Chang

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.