In another episode, two of the characters experiment on a patient, performing an illegal autopsy against a family's wishes. On the show, the characters are forgiven, instead of arrested, because they discover the patient had a rare genetic disease (which Oh blithely mispronounces). But as doctors, we could not forgive the producers for their superficial all's-well ending. Since the Tuskegee tragedy, doctors have instilled institutional checks to ensure that clinical research is ethical. Still, many patients avoid doctors because they are afraid of being experimented on. The autopsy on Grey's Anatomy's casually corroborated their worst fears.
Watching these episodes makes us long, in spite of ourselves, for the days when the AMA had television producers on a tight leash. Don't get us wrong: We don't miss Dr. Welby's starched white coat. But we are afraid that TV's worst inaccuracies may compromise what trust remains between doctors and patients.
A few months ago, one of our patients left the hospital emergency room before getting treated because he did not want to miss a Grey's Anatomy episode. As he signed out against his doctors' advice, he reminded us that medical shows are sometimes better than patient realities. Maybe so. But the patients are what real doctoring is all about.