Spine surgeons on the screen: What entertainment gets right, wrong about the job


The words "medical drama" make many people think of Grey's Anatomy and its beloved neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Shepherd. Many shows on the big and small screens have tried to provide a glimpse into what spine surgeons and neurosurgeons do.

Six spine surgeons told Becker's what they do and don't like about seeing their jobs on the big and small screens.

Ask Spine Surgeons is a weekly series of questions posed to spine surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting spine care. Becker's invites all spine surgeon and specialist responses.

Next week's question: What’s the biggest threat to spine surgeons in 2023?

Please send responses to Carly Behm at cbehm@beckershealthcare.com by 5 p.m. CDT Wednesday, April 19.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What do television shows and movies get right when depicting spine and neurosurgeons? What do they get wrong?

Harel Deutsch, MD. Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush (Chicago): The best show for neurosurgery is Lenox Hill on Netflix. The show has the most detail and authentic representation of a surgeon's life.

Brian Fiani, DO. Mendelson Kornblum Orthopedic & Spine Specialists (Livonia, Mich.): What television shows and movies get right when depicting neurosurgeons is the dedication to their patients and their rigorous pursuit of surgical perfection. There is great satisfaction in restoring a patient’s health particularly under dire circumstances and emergent scenarios. Dealing with life-threatening scenarios is a part of the daily life for neurosurgeons. What television shows and movies do not depict well is the uninspiring moments such as the longevity of training, the emotional and financial hardships during the education and training process, and the unglamorous meetings that most neurosurgeons have to complete.

Brian Gantwerker, MD. The Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: One of the most egregious errors was in the Spider-Man sequel. When Doc Ock was under anesthesia and was about to get the arms cut off, they had him first in a Mayfield, and then suddenly a horseshoe. But besides that, there is a tremendous amount of oversimplification when a television or movie character has spinal surgery. We see many neurosurgeons depicted as full of hubris, socially awkward and terse. We are a very heterogeneous group and as a whole, I find us confident, but not cocky, and very acutely aware of the pitfalls of what we do. If I could, I would certainly try to do a more accurate depiction of us as humans, with families, insecurities, who really love what they do.

Ali Mesiwala, MD. DISC Sports & Spine Center: Television shows and movies generally do a good job in portraying neurosurgeons and spine surgeons as having exceptionally long and intense training. The biggest issue, however, is that the drama surrounding them is oftentimes exaggerated. Most neurosurgeons and spine surgeons are pretty methodical in how they proceed with their work and are generally not involved in the politics and extracurricular drama that many of these shows portray.

In addition, the surgeries that are shown are oftentimes fairly routine, but made to be more intense and dramatic in order to appeal to the audience. It is striking how often surgeons are shown without masks or protective eyewear when doing these invasive procedures. In addition, many of the technologies that they highlight are actually old, and the implants that they show are incorrect for the operations they are portraying.

All in all, it seems like the lay perspective of a neurosurgeon being an apex specialist is of more importance than the daily reality of what the work entails.

Issada Thongtrangan, MD. Microspine (Scottsdale, Ariz.): I've rarely watched medical drama shows since I was a resident. In many parts, they almost always get it wrong.

Medical shows often show doctors and surgeons sitting with patients at their bedsides, monitoring their vitals and helping them walk around after treatment. In real life, however, nurses and other medical staff take care of most of the bedside care. Medical shows don't usually capture the range of providers that are responsible for patient care, from nurse practitioners and physician assistants to respiratory therapists, pharmacists, nutritionists, and  occupational and physical therapists.

Contrary to what you might see on TV, it's rare for a doctor to completely revive a patient with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Though CPR is still one of the best things a bystander can do if someone's heart stops beating, it's not an instant cure. The reality of CPR's effectiveness is much grimmer than what is shown on TV. Although exact statistics are varied, according to a 2016 study, the American Heart Association reports that CPR saves one life for every 30, with a 10 percent decrease in survival with each minute of delay.

Christian Zimmerman, MD. St. Alphonsus Medical Group and SAHS Neuroscience Institute (Boise, Idaho): The majority of TV shows depicting neurosurgeons and their care make up in sensationalism contrasts to what they lack in reality. The right is probably the demeanor and intensity of surgeons alike, (from the early sixties, Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare), to the most current programs which get the wrong in the decision-making processes of science and application. Reality shows are contrived snapshots of extravaganza, egalitarian on their face, with attention drawn to emotion and reaction versus disease process and expertise of treatment. Even more far-fetched and stigmatizing is a recent British show associating a neurosurgeon and his emotional weaknesses and his altered ego. Is truth really stranger than fiction?

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