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Are medical television programmes harming our healthcare?

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Most people will hold their hands up to admit that they have a guilty pleasure when it comes to television programmes, I think it’s fair to admit that most of us love, every now and again, to watch what is commonly known as “car crash TV.” This can be taken literally when it comes to the multitude of medical dramas and programmes that have been broadcast over the years, and continues to take over and crowd our screens regularly. From a very early age I can vividly remember sitting and watching BBC’s Casualty, as a family, hiding my eyes at the sign of blood, but being secretly thrilled that I was allowed to stay up on a Saturday night to watch these gory scenes. As BBC’s longest running medical drama, Casualty is filled with dramatic storylines, gruesome accidents and characters that we, as a viewer, can follow and empathise with. There is never a dull moment when it comes to such medical dramas, because quite simply, it needs to make good television that people will tune into each week. Can medical dramas represent a true day in the life of a medical professional? Would this make for impulsive viewing?

The question is posed as to how true to life are these dramas? No-one knows what true life working as a nurse is like, apart from fellow nurses. I remember being distinctly underwhelmed as I sat in A&E as a child with a sprained ankle, that there were no huge personal dramas with the staff unfolding before my eyes. Are these programmes painting an unrealistic picture of what life working in a nursing profession is like? Does this, therefore, create an impractical expectation of what to expect from our nursing staff as a patient, or even as a family or a friend of someone who works in this field?

From Casualty to E.R, House and Scrubs, medical television dramas explore and represent the notion of what life is supposedly like working in this sector. These programmes often have extreme medical procedures, unusual diagnostic cases with quite often a big emphasis on ethics and personal circumstances surrounding these, to create a storyline, which often involves medical professionals putting their lives at risk or breaking protocol for the sake of a patient, all to make riveting television. This may not only give a false impression of what our healthcare is like, but is it also influencing our young professionals who are studying to go into nursing or medicine? Does this give them a false impression of the career they are going into? Should the curriculum be amended to include what students are exposed to in the fictional medical world?

Most people tend to watch television programmes in a group of two people or more. “Gogglebox” is a Channel 4 programme which has become increasingly popular since it first aired in 2013. It shows groups of friends and families watching television, and documents their reactions and discussions with each other. A survey at one UK University revealed that more than 80% of medical and nursing students watch medical dramas on television. Are these inevitable discussions amongst our budding medical workers again leading to false expectations of what their career will have in store? The question is posed as to whether this is a hindrance or of benefit to our healthcare industry. Will this mismatch of drama versus reality lead to disappointment, and therefore drop outs of our healthcare staff?

Male nurses are still often subject to stereotypes. Many current dramas and television programmes are now showing women taking on traditionally male occupations i.e. police officers and lawyers, with the female often taking a leading, protagonist role. Similarly, male nurses in medical dramas have been introduced in an attempt to bridge the gap. However, despite this, these stereotypes still seem to be reinforced, but seemingly in a more implicit way. Most commonly, these medical dramas see questions in regards to a male nurse’s career, masculinity or sexuality. There was a question that was raised by a family member of mine recently, as to what the male version of a ward’s “Sister” is…! This, along with the notorious association of nursing to females, make us question as to whether these stereotypes are stopping our male population from going into nursing. Even the term itself is derived from a woman’s role as a mother and nurturer, with stereotypes asserting the fitness of women for the nurturing, caring and compassionate nature of nursing. Only 9% of the nurses in the United Kingdom are male. Is television making it difficult to recruit males into the nursing profession?

However, can these programmes actually be helpful in strengthening our healthcare as a whole? Are we starting to turn a corner in the portrayal of our medical professionals? In 2015, a comedy was aired called “Nurse” which followed a community mental health nurse. With the strive for mental health to become less taboo and more commonly spoken about, this not only raised awareness, but allowed mental health issues to become discussed more openly amongst viewers, and consequently, may have opened doors for individuals who may be able to relate to issues or illnesses raised in the programme.

This can be extended to procedures in these programmes that people can utilise for future scenarios. A documentary once aired called “Casualty Saved my life.” This was a documentary of real life stories of people who had saved their own or other people’s lives using techniques they had picked up from scenes they have watched on their screen in their living room on a Saturday evening.

Two series’ called “HawthoRNe” and “Nurse Jackie” have been aired in recent years, in the producer’s attempt to humanise these dramas and show them through the eyes of nurses. Both dramas are narrated from the direct perspective and point of view of a staff nurse, documenting their thoughts, feelings and have them as the centre protagonist.

Recently, the introduction of other genres of programme have helped to further bridge the gap between drama and reality. Documentaries have aired such as 24 hours in A&E, One Born Every Minute, and a Channel 4 programme called “Confessions of a Nurse.” This follows a series where we have seen junior doctors, vets and teachers in their early stages of their career. This programme follows nurses in a hospital setting over a one year period, revealing the truth behind the job and in turn, hopefully starting to help break down the perhaps unrealistic barrier that these dramas portray.

By educating the public through the medium of television dramas and documentaries exploring our healthcare profession, we can finally start to undo some of the potentially negative ideas that are common about nursing, and thereby strengthen this profession.
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