Health Policy Issues in TV's Medical Dramas

"As Seen on TV: Health Policy Issues in TV's Medical Dramas" is the title of the report issued by Professor Joseph Turow and PhD candidate Rachel Gans, recipients of a Kaiser Family Foundation grant to study the presence and nature of health care images in medical shows on television. The report is the product of an extensive content analysis of every episode of every prime time doctor series in the 2000/2001 television season, a total of 74 shows.

Key findings include:

  • Health policy issues do come up with regularity in TV's hospital dramas. On average, there were just under 2 scenes per hour referencing such issues. About seven out of ten episodes (68%) included at least one mention of a health policy issue.
  • Most of the issues raised are not gone into in great depth. Of all the health policy topics raised, 66% were dispatched in just one scene, while one in five were carried out over three or more scenes.
  • Most interactions concerned ethical issues rather than resource-related topics such as the cost of care or access to needed services. Of all health policy interactions, 78% concerned ethical issues, 13% concerned resource issues, and 9% concerned both.
  • Many shows made reference to institutional players in health policy debates. The most frequently mentioned players were hospitals (37 policy-related mentions), lawyers (20), the federal government (8), insurance companies (7), HMOSs (6), and social service agencies (5).
  • Most of these institutional players were referenced in either a neutral or a "mixed" manner. The exceptions were insurance companies (4 negative references, no positive, the rest neutral), lawyers (6 negative, 2 positive, the rest mixed or neutral), and HMOs (all 6 references were negative).
  • Of all the health policy interactions, more than half (59%) concerned public policy issues on the docket of government bodies such as legislators or regulatory agencies; the remainder concerned malpractice cases (32%) or hospital or institutional policies (9%).

Copies of this report are available on the Kaiser Family Foundation website.