By: Zachary Fredman, MD
If a person is outside of the medical field it can sometimes be difficult for them to perceive what it is like to be a physician. One of the most surprising places to get an inside view of both the personal and professional lives of the people behind the white coat is on TV. Although there are many inaccuracies in TV shows with a medical framework, one thing that a few shows seem to get right are the interactions and emotions with the characters to each other and their work environment.
Neither of my parents were physicians when I was growing up so I was exposed to medical life on TV long before I knew that that is what I wanted to do. As a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H—which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital—is a “dramedy” (dramatic comedy) which takes place during the Korean War and predominately focuses on the surgeons and nurses that are stationed there with a backdrop of dark humor.
My grandfather was a Korean War Veteran and watching it with him gave me a small glimpse into what he experienced through the war. This was the only time when he discussed his time in the military. He enjoyed the show for the humor much more than the drama or the medicine; nonetheless, it provided him an outlet to discuss his experiences. M*A*S*H gave a credible insight into the relationships and characters which brought back a lot of his stories about being with people from his regiment.
Much like M*A*S*H related to my grandfather’s time in the military, it can relate to those in the medical field. The show often swings, frequently abruptly, from humorous to dramatic. The characters in one instant switch from pulling a prank on a colleague to having a bus filled with wounded soldiers arrive at the base. This rapidly shifting emotion is common throughout a workday while in residency as well as being in a clinic or hospital. In one room you have the responsibility of breaking bad news to a patient and his or her family and within a couple minutes you go to another room to celebrate with an excited woman who is arriving for her first OB/GYN visit after finally getting pregnant after years of trying.
Later on I started watching the show Scrubs, another “dramedy”, that follows a group of resident physicians beginning as they start their intern year and progress throughout residency. This show has been touted by multiple sources for its medical and emotional accuracy. The main characters in the show are based on real-life physicians who helped provide realistic and sometimes personal stories about their time working in residency.
One of the most accurate aspects of the show is the interpersonal relationships between the characters. When looking back at different episodes what the viewer usually remembers most is not the diagnosis or treatment of a condition, but rather how the young physicians handled situations together and how it impacts them afterward. One example that comes to mind is when two of the interns are competing during rounds by trying to outsmart each other when the attending is asking them questions. They initially start to resent one another but a code is called and they join in working as a team helping the other person with the algorithm. Although during residency there have not been many competitive moments, there have been many times for us to work together. Much of the time this comes in the form of a fellow resident offering to help out with an admission or discharge. Sometimes you can get frustrated with another colleague, but at the end of the day you know that they have the patients’ best interests in their mind and they will have your back.
Scrubs does not hide from the realities of medicine. The fourth episode of the series is centered on the bond between interns and the patients that they are caring for. By the end of the episode all three of the patients die, one because she refuses dialysis and the other two because there were no more treatments available. Other episodes touch on difficult aspects of medicine and life in medical training. One example was when a patient comes to the hospital and is attempting to manipulate the doctors in order to get opiate pain medication. In the episode “My Fruit Cups” the residents discuss how they each cope differently with their hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student debt through either relying on parent’s money, moonlighting, or even humorously stealing food (pudding cups) and toilet paper from the hospital to make ends meet—I don’t necessarily condone the last one. Another episode expresses one of the physicians experiencing burnout and a depressive episode after three of his patients die on the same day due to a transplant screening mistake.
Watching medical shows on TV gives a small view into the life of young physicians inside and even more importantly, their life outside the hospital. The situations in shows happen all too frequently in real-life, but together as a residency class, we take time to talk about it with one another and support each other, usually over drinks like the physicians in both M*A*S*H and Scrubs.
Zachary Fredman, MD, is a first-year resident in the Family Medicine Residency Program at the University of Utah.