Misrepresentation of Genetics on TV: Harmless or Harmful?

Most medical TV dramas have, at some point, featured a genetics-related plot line. In a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode,  three siblings struggle with the decision to have prophylactic gastrectomy  after testing positive for a known familial gastric cancer mutation. In that same episode, a high school student in a marching band is “cured” of her seizure disorder after be correctly diagnosed with ARVC. And during an episode of “House,” one of the residents draws her own blood, runs it through a machine and quickly receives a print out confirming that she carries a familial Huntington’s disease mutation. Notably, she tested herself only after extensive bullying from her physician boss.

Until recently,  I wrote these scenarios off as interesting, humorous and somewhat frustrating misrepresentations of genetics in medicine. However, a recent lecture I heard by the Ontario Deputy Chief Coroner got me thinking otherwise. As she explained, misrepresentations of the work of a Coroner by TV programs are a huge detriment to the work of their office and in turn the relationship between the Coroner and families. Families are often distraught when the Coroner is unable to provide a specific time of death (e.g. 2:23pm), a quick explanation of cause of death and timely autopsy report. This got me thinking about the role of TV in my everyday interaction with patients. Do these misrepresentations signifantly impact my counselor-patient relationship?

The most obvious misperception that I encounter on a daily basis is the amount of time it takes to receive genetic test results. People are shocked when they learn their results may take anywhere between one and three months to receive. And I often spend a significant amount of time downplaying the “absoluteness” of genetic information: a negative genetic test result doesn’t rule out a diagnosis and a positive predictive test result doesn’t guarantee the onset of a future medical issue. Not surprisingly,  survey’s have shown that diseases featured on “Grey’s Anatomy” have increased the public’s knowledge of a condition.

So, in an ideal world, representing medical genetics accurately in TV programming could possibly enhance the genetic counseling appointment. We all know that there are enough interesting and ethically charged stories in genetics to work with. Any TV producers out there care to take this one on?

Then again, I supposed waiting three months for test results wouldn’t make for the most exhilarating television.


Filed under Allie Janson Hazell

3 responses to “Misrepresentation of Genetics on TV: Harmless or Harmful?

  1. Allison

    My favorite statement when gathering history on a patient with complex and vague symptoms is: “We’ve been seen by so many doctors and nobody can give us a diagnosis. We came here hoping that you’ll be like Dr. House.” What I want to explain to them is how Dr. House’s patients, even the ones with genetic disorders, conveniently almost always have something testable and treatable. In real life, by the time you get to Genetics, if we find something it’s probably not going to be treatable.

  2. Kathryn Spitzer Kim

    TV programs and other forms of popular media do shape people’s knowledge base and attitudes. I think that genetic counselors should work to counteract stereotypes or misinformation by following up on things that we come across in the public arena. This could take the form of a letter to a magazine, newspaper, or TV network/producer. If the error is egregious, it might be something that a group like NSGC should address. There are scientists and medical personnel who become consultants to shows. If you write to “complain” about or correct a depiction in the media, you probably need to offer to be a resource so that future information can be checked.
    Who knows? Maybe that is the next subspecialty in GC!

  3. I didn’t understand the concluding part of your article, could you please explain it more?

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