Is There A Grey’s Anatomy Effect?

Like the CSI franchise, Grey’s Anatomy has become an important cultural institution in the United States; the primetime soap may be yet another iteration of a long-established television category, but something about it is compelling audiences to tune in season after season. This even after the plots get more and more absurd and the characters seem to flatten with time, much as though they’re being crushed under the weight of being trapped inside the series. While it may not quite be at the cult status of predecessors like ER or concurrent shows like CSI, Grey’s Anatomy is a force to be reckoned with.

Which in itself is an accomplishment to take note of, since the show is helmed by a female producer, and Shonda Rhimes is a woman of colour in a white man’s world. The fact that Rhimes has become a very successful producer with multiple shows to her name and a large following says a lot about the cultural shifts taking in place in Hollywood, how far television has come, and how far it needs to go. Grey’s is the show that launched a thousand ships, for her, allowing her to take even more control and promote herself as a serious contender in a highly competitive television landscape. It’s worth taking a risk on Shonda Rhimes, because it can pay off, big time.

But what kind of cultural effect has Grey’s Anatomy had? It seems likely that more people are going into medicine, and surgery specifically, because of the show; cardiothoracics in particular is made out to be a glamourous and exciting, if highly challenging, profession. While Grey’s Anatomy is rather short on realism, it is precisely that which makes it so appealing to people considering medical professions; though it’s unfortunate that the show focuses on doctors to the exclusion of nurses, medical technicians, and the other people who perform such important roles in patient care.

Nurses in particular seem to catch a lot of disdain on the show (it is hard to tell, for example, whether Meredith is angrier about Derek dating another woman, or dating a nurse when he goes out with Rose). I can’t imagine many people watching Grey’s and thinking that a career in nursing would be exciting, which is a pity, because we’re facing a critical nurse shortage, and nurses are an extremely valuable part of the patient care team. Those who are interested in extended patient interactions and actual relationships with patients, for example, might find nursing a more rewarding path than surgery.

The show has also clearly changed patient perceptions of doctors and other medical professionals. Grey’s attempts to demystify some of the processes involved in the practice of medicine, humanising doctors at the same time it informs people about the language of medicine and the logic behind the decisions made by care providers. Does this make it easier, or harder for patients to interact with their doctors? On the one hand, it seems like Grey’s Anatomy might be facilitating self-advocacy, but that’s not always something doctors appreciate.

And the show may be setting up false expectations in terms of what kinds of medical treatments are available and what is reasonable to expect in various circumstances. Medicine is a complex profession and every case is unique, but the doctors at Seattle Grace enjoy an uncanny success rate, even against all odds. They also have access to sophisticated technology, techniques, and personnel, something not all hospitals have, especially in the golden hour so critical with trauma cases. Like CSI, does Grey’s Anatomy create an inflated sense of what is actually possible, thus raising expectations to an unreasonable level?

In court, the CSI effect has become enough of an issue that it’s changing the way cases are conducted and requiring people to think critically about how they use forensic experts and consultants. Suddenly, attorneys and experts are having to educate juries about the real world behind the science, and how it’s actually applied in the lab; forensics is not as simple as depicted on CSI, not as fast, not as definitive, not as sweeping. Juries are expecting evidentiary support that just doesn’t exist, and can’t, given the limitations of current technology, and possibly ever, because the thing about science is that elements of doubt are always present.

And the world of forensic science is moving more quickly than regulations, which means not all the science seen on CSI, or in court, is necessarily scientifically valid. Even as researchers struggle to understand, explore, verify, and repeat forensic analyses to determine how useful and statistically valid they are, the outcome of forensic testing is being presented as assuredly correct and 100% accurate. This leaves juries with mixed impressions about the state of forensic science, and these are confused even further by the lack of regulation that allows people with a wide variety of training and skills to work in forensic labs, processing evidence that can become crucial to cases.

CSI and Grey’s Anatomy both create very rosy pictures of science and medicine, presenting issues as crystal-clear and obvious, easy to assess and understand, but that’s not the case in real-world environments. Both shows are having a profound effect on how people interact with the sciences, and while interest in science is a good thing, this kind of interest has some serious ramifications. Seeing more people interested in pursuing careers in the science is quite exciting, as we definitely need more scientists on the ground, but seeing laypeople confusing pop culture with reality is troubling, especially when they think viewing these kinds of programmes confers a level of expert experience.

No matter how many times I watch Grey’s Anatomy, I’m not a doctor. And while patient advocacy is a good thing, it shouldn’t be confused with a naive perception of how medicine really works.