Television medical dramas can be misleading when it comes to the proper way to deal with epileptic seizures or convulsions, say researchers, who have found that small-screen doctors and nurses do it incorrectly more than half the time.
In a study by Dalhousie University, researchers screened all episodes of the top medical shows, including "Grey's Anatomy," "House," "Private Practice" and the last five seasons of "ER."
Of 327 episodes, there were almost 60 examples of patients experiencing seizures or convulsions, said lead investigator Andrew Moeller, a third-year medical student at the Halifax university. Of those, most took place within hospital settings on the shows and were treated by "nurses" or "doctors."
The study found that in 25 cases - about 46 per cent - the story line had health providers giving first aid for seizures in an inappropriate manner, said Moeller, who screened all 327 episodes of the medical shows. Proper treatment was shown in 17 seizures, or about 29 per cent of the time, while appropriateness could not be determined in 15 cases, or about 25 per cent of the total.
"What we characterized as inappropriate handling of it was trying to stop someone's seizing movements, trying to hold the person down or sticking something in their mouth," he said from Halifax.
"What you should be doing is clearing the area of harmful objects. If it's possible, rotate the person onto their side to keep them from hurting themselves - it's called the recovery position - and if possible put something soft under their head."
"And once they're finished the seizure, just staying with the person until they recover their full consciousness."
Moeller, who conducted the study with Halifax neurologist Dr. Mark Sadler, said the concern is that viewers who are unaware of the proper way to give first aid to someone having a seizure will take their cue from what they see on TV.
"And (they could) inadvertently hurt someone when they're actually trying to help someone."
Moeller said holding a person down or trying to stop their seizing movements can cause bruises or cuts, and in rare cases serious muscle damage.
"Sticking something in someone's mouth is more dangerous. Most of the time you're probably just going to smash their teeth and cut up their tongue," he said. "Some detrimental things that could happen from that could be smashing some teeth out and the person inhaling their tooth or inhaling some blood."
"That's very rare, but it is a possibility. You want to avoid that at all costs."
People having seizures can bite their tongues, he agreed, but stressed it's far more dangerous to stick an object like a stick or pencil in their mouths.
Sandra de Castro Buffington, director of Hollywood, Health and Society at the University of Southern California, said she understands the concern about some viewers acting on what they see on TV dramas.
"I totally understand that, because we know from ... survey data that nearly two-thirds of regular viewers of TV - defined as viewers who watch two or more times a week - say they learn something new about health from television shows."
"When I say learn something new, they learn something new about a disease or how to prevent it," she said from Los Angeles. "And one-third of those viewers take action on what they've learned."
Hollywood, Health and Society is an independent, non-profit program created eight years ago to serve as a free resource to the entertainment industry. The organization connects scriptwriters and producers with medical experts to "increase the accuracy and timely portrayal of health topics in TV, health story lines, and film and new media," she said.
It works or has worked with all four medical dramas assessed by the Dalhousie study, both through proactive outreach to writers and also by responding to their inquiries.
But when it comes to the researchers' take that nearly half of the portrayals of seizures were inaccurate, De Castro Buffington said she "would flip this on its head and come up with a very different conclusion."
"What that says to me is over half of the portrayals of seizure were accurate - over half. Now that's pretty impressive." (The 25 per cent that researchers could not be determine may have been done correctly.)
She pointed out that the job of TV writers is to tell compelling stories, not to be health educators. "That`s not their job. And we respect that."
"I say take the opposite approach and say let's recognize exemplary health portrayals, reward writers for those accurate portrayals of seizure," said de Castro Buffington, noting her organization presents annual awards for work that is accurate, timely and relevant in presenting a broad range of health issues.
Moeller said a more detailed analysis from the study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology`s annual meeting to be held in Toronto in April.