When Life Doesn’t Imitate Art: How Hospital TV Shows Set Consumer Expectations — and How to Bridge the Gap

December 24, 2021

// By Richard L. Cohen //

Richard CohenA satirist once said, “Life doesn’t imitate art; it imitates bad television.” While doctor shows aren’t necessarily bad TV, they do present an idealized portrait of hospital care, and reality is often very different.

I am a medical television junkie. Starting with ER seemingly forever ago, I have watched hundreds of episodes of medical television shows over the years. Recently my viewing has included the Canadian import Transplant and the U.S.-produced The Resident, The Good Doctor, Chicago Med, and New Amsterdam. (I bailed out of Grey’s Anatomy after five seasons.) I am also a veteran health care marketing journalist, having covered the profession since the mid 1980s.

Many in the health care establishment may dismiss these shows as mere fantasy. After all, for dramatic effect, many plotlines you would never realistically see in the real-world health care system: new service lines that appear fully formed in one week, a new logo that graces the side of a building overnight, wings transformed in the blink of an eye, and public relations campaigns that last to the next commercial.

But rather than mere fiction designed to pass the hour, I believe there may be important lessons for health care marketing professionals.

One lesson focuses on public perception. Rightly or wrongly, these shows do contribute to viewers’ beliefs about how our health delivery system works — or ought to work. This contrasts with their real-world experience and can set up a dissonance of expectations.

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