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Thursday, September 17, 1998 Published at 23:34 GMT 00:34 UK


UK medical soaps 'true to life'

Another shift for the staff of Holby General in the BBC's Casualty

The dramatic resuscitation techniques portrayed in UK television medical dramas give a fair indication of what happens in real life, according to a report in the British Medical Journal.

Researchers studied more than 60 episodes of Casualty, Cardiac Arrest and Medics and found that a quarter of the patients who suffered a cardiac arrest survived after being resuscitated - similar to the proportion in real life.

This compared with the over-optimistic American medical soaps such as ER and Chicago Hope in which three-quarters of the patients pulled through.

Public knowledge

Dr Patrick Gordon and colleagues from South Cleveland Hospital, Middlesbrough, did the study with the aim of understanding how television might improve the public's knowledge of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

CPR is the medical term which covers the heart massage, mouth-to-mouth breathing, drugs and electric shock therapy that is given to patients when their hearts stop beating.

"People have said that TV is one of the most important factors in their education about medical issues generally, but in particular about resuscitation and intensive care," Dr Gordon said.

"Our purpose was to find out what was happening on television and we're hoping to contribute to some discussion on how TV is influencing people."

Young people

In the 64 UK episodes studied, there were a total of 52 on-screen cardiorespiratory arrests. Of these 52 patients, 32 underwent CPR with eight patients surviving.

[ image: Helen Baxendale took the lead in Cardiac Arrest]
Helen Baxendale took the lead in Cardiac Arrest
Although this outcome is very close to what happens in the real world, Dr Gordon said the patients featured on TV were more likely to be younger and suffer a cardiac arrest as a result of trauma than was normally the case.

"I think generally younger people provide more interesting television", he said.

"In real life, the vast majority of these people in hospital tend not to have accidents, injuries or assaults. Usually they are at the end of their natural lives, suffering more natural disease processes."

Patient expectations

The Middlesbrough team said healthcare workers who talked to patients about resuscitation and taught CPR needed to take account of the influence of TV dramas on people's preconceptions.

"The danger of exaggerating the effect of resuscitation is that people have false expectations when they come to hospital," Dr Gordon said.

"We have to have very realistic down to earth talks with people about their real chances for survival and their options for treatment. And if you want to tease out what the best way of dealing with a particular person is, you need to be assured that they have a realistic idea of what's going on."

With more hospitals allowing the relatives of patients into resuscitation rooms to see their loved ones being treated, Dr Gordon also said the TV experience might help prepare people for potentially shocking scenes.

"Obviously, if you are familiar with the scenes and the scenario and the equipment_then sure. But in many ways, you will never really be prepared for what you see in resuscitation."

Programme consultants

Johnathan Young, series producer of the BBC's top-rated show Casualty, said the medical consultants on the programme ensured the scripts were sensible.

"We take the view that it is a medical drama. There is no drama without the medical in Casualty," he said.

"We know very well that the audience wants to see our characters as doctors and nurses, and we also believe very strongly that it is the realism of it which makes the show sustainable. If we didn't make it real, it would become melodrama very quickly.

"There is a tendency that we have to fight in ourselves to make it melodramatic, and we come up with fantastic scenarios and the medics slap us down and say 'it isn't like that'."

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