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.