Television Doctors: An Analysis of Physicians in Fictional and Non-Fictional Television Programs

Article excerpt

One important topic often emphasized by television is that of physicians and health care. Early research on portrayals of medical doctors indicates that television presents physicians in a very positive manner (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1981; Gerbner, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1982; Kalisch & Kalisch, 1984). Pfau, Mullen, and Garrow (1995) suggest that more recent, fast-paced medical dramas (e.g., ER and Chicago Hope) focus more on negative physician characteristics and claim such negative portrayals of physicians and the relationship between viewing these programs and perceptions of physicians should be investigated. Pfau et al. (1995) call for an investigation of the possibility that these newer, more negative, portrayals of television doctors may lead to decreased public confidence and trust in physicians. The present study responds to this call by conducting an updated content analysis of prime-time fictional television. The present study also extends the work by Pfau et al. (1995) to investigate the portrayals of physicians not only on prime-time fictional television, but on other daytime and evening program genres including soap operas, talk shows, network news, and news magazines.

The health care environment of today is a marked departure from that of the post-World War II era in which health insurance proliferated, access to health care increased, and physicians' abilities to cure diseases were dramatically increasing due to pharmaceutical and technological advances. During this period, physicians were held in high esteem and television added to this prestige through its American Medical Association-approved doctor shows such as Medic, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, and Marcus Welby, M.D. (Holoweiko, 1998).

Today, there are controversies over financing and delivering health care and there are concerns about cost and medicine as a scarce resource (Turow, 1996). The current climate surrounding health care and physicians appears to be one of medical consumerism in which the physician-patient encounter is viewed as a business transaction. Patients are more demanding of their physicians and they no longer have complete faith in them (Holoweiko, 1998). The public now questions scientific and technical institutions, such as medicine, and is becoming more aware of the social and ethical implications of scientific practices (Nelkin, 1996). Although the current health care environment is laden with such concerns, current television programming does not appear to reflect this reality (Turow, 1996; Turow & Coe, 1985). Turow (1996) argues that medical scarcity is shown as irrelevant to doctors and physicians are shown to act independently of the medical establishment and their superiors in providing patient care.

Though television does not appear to be accurately reflecting the health care environment, it is playing a more prominent role in providing health information and shaping perceptions about health care. A recent survey by the National Health Council revealed that today more people turn to television as their primary source of medical/health information (40%) than turn to physicians (36%). Seventy-six percent of the respondents reported having taken the advice offered in a news story they heard or read. Overall, respondents cited television news magazines as the most credible source of health news (Healthcare PR, 1998). In particular, television has been reported to be people's primary source of information on specific medical techniques such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (Schonwetter, Walker, Kramer, & Robinson, 1993).

The current atmosphere surrounding health care in the United States, television's seemingly inaccurate portrayals of health care and physicians, the public's increased dependence on television for health information, and television's influence on the health-related perceptions of this public (Nelkin, 1996) warrant examining the relationship between television viewing and perceptions of physicians. …


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