Television doctors can hold powerful sway over how people perceive medicine. Research has found that programs depicting physicians in an unflattering light correlate with negative and distrustful feelings toward doctors in the real world. Meanwhile, frequent viewers of courageous doctors on shows such as Grey’s Anatomy tend to have positive beliefs about physicians, as well as higher satisfaction with their own medical care.
Read: Health care in the time of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’
This is worrying because over the past 50 years, TV doctors have devolved from caring, honest, and authoritative figures—as in the 1954 drama Medic, for example—into the arrogant and unethical characters we often see today. The hit series E.R. was among the first to depict hospitals as cold, inhumane environments staffed with callous and overworked (yet sympathetic) physicians, paving the way for the eponymous Dr. Gregory House, a pompous, rude, and drug-addicted (yet brilliant) diagnostician. Recently, Fox’s The Resident has taken the notion of bad doctors to the extreme, portraying physicians who routinely kill patients through medical error and then cover up the deaths as accidents, all while belittling and abusing their patients and one another. Against this backdrop, distrust in physicians is rising, with only 34 percent of Americans now expressing confidence in medical leaders, down from 73 percent in 1966. Crucially, this decline has occurred despite the fact that most people still trust and admire their own physicians; it’s the medical profession at large that many see as more suspect.
New Amsterdam is a throwback to the old-school, superhuman TV doctor, with a notable twist. While Goodwin and his apostles are unflinchingly noble, they’re also clearly intended to be exceptions to the rule. Other doctors, the audience is told, are the problem: They are “corrupt and lazy,” performing unnecessary procedures to inflate billing and prioritizing golf over patient care. Even the lone surgeon who escapes the chopping block scoffs at Goodwin, saying, “You do know the whole system is rigged, don’t you? I mean, they’re not going to let you come in here and just … help people.” In another episode, Goodwin meets a homeless woman who is “skeptical” of doctors. “So am I,” he tells a colleague.
Working with patients, I’ve come face-to-face with the end result of this distrust, which often manifests as a deep reluctance to accept evidence-based treatments such as vaccines, antibiotics, and needed medications and procedures. Frequently, patients and their families mention seeing something on TV, online, or in the news that scared them, though they often can’t express more than a dark, nagging suspicion that something nefarious is lurking behind the scenes. Once, a woman told me that The Resident had lifted the veil for her on how medicine really works. Other patients, perhaps bolstered by fictional story lines like Leo’s, have told me that they believe doctors will only make them sicker. It can sometimes be impossible to assuage my patients’ fears, to the real detriment of their health.