Alas, the lives of residents at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital are far more spectacular than the lives of nonfictional residents.
Grey Matters

‘Grey’s Anatomy’ vs. real-life residency: You already know how this turns out

Amanda Kirzner, DO, MPH, says real-world residency is nothing like its thrill-a-minute depiction on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Grey’s Anatomy” has been one of my favorite TV shows since its inception in 2005. Back then I was a premed, so I watched the drama about the lives of surgical residents and physicians with great interest, even though I knew many aspects of the residents’ lives were exaggerated or just plain incorrect. When I became a general surgery intern myself last year, these discrepancies became even more obvious to me.

I understand that “Grey’s Anatomy’s” producers have to sometimes sacrifice realism to engage their audience and garner ratings. But I dislike the way the show overglamorizes the lives of the residents and often presents false medical information. By portraying the residents’ lives as exciting, dramatic whirlwinds, the show makes real-world residency seem less difficult. I would not be surprised if medical students watching the show are shocked and disillusioned when they finally rotate through surgery and find out what the surgical world is really like. I certainly was surprised.

During my intern year, my biggest pet peeve was watching the interns on the show go into the operating room for big, complicated cases such as brain surgery every day. Typically, interns on a surgical service take care of the patients on the floor. They rarely see the inside of the OR, and when they do, it’s usually to assist with an emergency or a run-of-the-mill case.

Surgical interns do a lot of scut work, such as drawing stat labs, putting in orders for nurses, talking to patients’ families, rounding with social workers to discuss patient placement upon discharge, accompanying patients to tests, and obtaining patients’ signatures on consent-to-surgery forms. Second-year residents (at least in my program, and it does vary) typically see consults. On the show, the interns appear to have bypassed the floor work and consult stages and function like chief residents in the OR, which is highly unrealistic.

Mistakes on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

And while they are rocking the OR, “Grey’s” interns and residents make embarrassingly egregious mistakes. Errant residents on the show are lightly punished for offenses that would get them kicked out of any actual residency program. For example, Izzie cuts a wire on her love interest Denny’s left ventricular assist device to make him sicker so that he would be moved up the transplant list. She was reprimanded but allowed to continue her residency. A real-life resident would not only be removed from the program and likely sued, but also unable to practice medicine ever again, with the chance of jail time. Furthermore, physicians are never allowed to become romantically involved with their patients.

I also see interns and residents on the show committing command-chain faux pas that would be frowned upon, or not permitted, in real hospitals. In most surgery residency programs, junior residents report to the senior residents, who in turn report to the attending physicians. Yet “Grey’s Anatomy” makes no distinction of resident seniority.

As an intern, I did not run to an attending before speaking to a senior resident as interns regularly do on the show. An intern who bypasses a chief to bring important patient information to an attending would irritate both the chief and the attending.

The schedules of the show’s residents are very unusual compared with the schedules of nonfictional surgical residents. Trainees at real-world hospitals won’t find themselves assigned to brain surgery one day, pediatric surgery the next day and plastic surgery the day after that. Surgical residents usually are assigned to a particular service for a set amount of time, often a month. Scheduling is not a free-for-all as fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” are led to believe. Residents do not arrive in the morning and pick their service based on which attending has the best cases that day (or which attending they are having a secret affair with).

Moreover, general surgery residents do not typically rotate through orthopedics or neurosurgery as they do on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Those specialties have their own residencies. Once new physicians match into a general surgery residency, orthopedics and neurosurgery are not options for them unless they want to switch residency programs.

Where’s the tape?

While some of the misrepresentations on “Grey’s Anatomy” are understandable—after all, the show’s purpose is to entertain—the medical errors on the show are just astounding. A recurring error on the show that really irks me has to do with intubation. During surgeries on “Grey’s Anatomy,” viewers often see a close-up of an intubated patient’s face. And 99% of the time, the endotracheal tube is not held in place with tape. In real life, we always use tape because the tube can easily slip from its correct position. If that were to happen, the patient could go into respiratory distress and die because of the powerful anesthetics in his or her system. These anesthetics paralyze the muscles that help you breathe, so patients taking them are temporarily unable to breathe on their own.

Also, I have never seen surgical patients with their eyes taped shut on the show. If patients’ eyes are not taped shut during surgery, they can get corneal abrasions. This is the standard of care. I have actually written to the show to tell the producers that if they are going to zoom in on a patient’s face, they should make the depiction as realistic as possible. A little tape can go a long way in the OR. I never received a response to my letter, but I know that the show’s writers consult with physicians, so I cannot understand why there are so many medical misrepresentations on the show.

Despite the unrealistic nature of “Grey’s Anatomy,” it is still one of my favorites. I have watched every single episode for 10 seasons. I enjoy the exhilarating, dramatic lives of the characters on the show, and I sometimes wish I were doing my residency in the fantasyland of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.

84 comments

    1. Idk what hospital that person is at, but in my surgical residence,
      it was exactly that Greya Anatomy.
      Sorry ur hospital sucks! I got great experience me first couple years! Sorry you didn’t.

  1. I’m not a doctor or ever plan to be one, but it annoys me to no end how on the recent seasons almost every doctor has some crazy groundbreaking idea for basic lab research, and then goes off and does lab work, and it works perfectly, and then two minutes later they’re getting the highest accolades in the field for it. Seriously??? Some of what they’re doing I’m sure actual surgeons wouldn’t even know enough to fully understand (just like the microbiologists or whoever would actually be doing that sort of research wouldn’t know anything about surgery)

  2. If it makes you feel any better, I am an attorney and watching Law & Order/Suits/How to Get Away With Murder or any of the other ubiquitous law shows makes me stabby. It’s just something you have to deal with because it’s TV and it’s unrealistic. If people really knew what my life was like, they would pity me.

    1. essentially the equivalent of watching high school musical in high school and wondering if you’re in the wrong place.

  3. ur all a bunch of haters this show is LYFEEEEE!!!!! and @Ariella I wanna be a lawyer toooooo!!!! :)) ok bye i’m gonna watch GREY’s!!!!!

    1. Look who ever you are, this is the worst comment I have seen here. This doctor is trying to convey something realistic, and yes this show is for entertainment but it is annoying to real life surgeons and doctors to see the misrepresentation in this show. I love this show, hell I am obssessed with it but I don’t like the way they depict the resident’s lives.

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  5. I am not in med school, but i am in nursing school. One thing i do know is you would be lucky if you saw so manu doctors around. On even trauma floors i have worked on, i saw one doctor the whole day. Doctors don’t put in IVs, nurses do. They show doctors holding a lot of responsibilities that they wouldn’t really have. Also they have so many fatal casualties it is impossible to believe. I still love my greys though and always will.

    1. I agree though I am in a third year resident and try and do as much direct patient care as possible, the nurses will always out do me. Even as a child having multiple surgeries I became best friends with my nurses and most often I didn’t know my doctors names

      1. I work at a teaching hospital and still doctors, even residents do not do the routine work portrayed on this show such as starting Ivs, Drawing labs, giving meds, taking stable patients to CT, MRI never

      2. it is not a teaching hospital when they were surgical interns residents taught them but no on a regular basis it is not

  6. Hi, I have question.. I’m planning to be a surgeon and more so a trauma surgeon, do you have any information that I need to know about it? If so, can you please email me! THANKS
    And I’m thinking of being in the army to help..

      1. She just asked a question, do you have to be suck a jerk?? Plus, if you would’ve looked at he time stamp you’d realize that your comment was a year too late. Look on google for a better personality.

  7. You are actually serious?

    You practice a medical profession because you were obviously influenced by a television show and you are *actually* surprised that its not the same as real life?

    The mind boggles, what would have happened if you got hooked on some other show instead? Would you be following down that path too?

    Sheep generation.

    1. *squints at the screen trying to figure how why you wanna bring a person down when they’re doing something they found interest in *

    2. First of all, it’s her/his life, so its not really your place to judge.
      Second of all, i think you mean CHEAP, mr smart mouth.

    3. If you think someone did 4 years of undergrad, took a difficult post-grad exam, applied to and accepted a position at a university to get a doctorate, graduated with a medical degree in surgery, only to follow that up with several years of residency all because they liked one show than you are out of your damn mind. Becoming a doctor is serious business and if someone was doing it for any other reason than true passion and grit they would’ve failed a long time ago. You can’t just go and decide to become a surgeon because it looks cool on tv (I promise it takes YEARS of hard work and dedication). She stated she was a surgical resident which means she put some serious money, time and effort into making a career – so until you learn what getting an undergrad degree is like (or even an advanced degree for that matter) hold off on the eye rolling and calling people sheep. Some of us who aren’t doctors are curious how close it is to reality (even though we know it’s a show).

    4. It’s okay to be inspired by something I was a surgical I became a surgical intern in 2005 when greys anatomy came out and I watched every single 312 episodes and today I’m proud to say I am the head of general surgery and actually at rose hospital located in Colorado and Grey Sloan are very similar

      1. Daniel, Carly said 312 episodes not 313, you might want to try getting your numbers straight before mocking others. And if you want to be so technical, at the time of your post, 258 episodes had aired. You missed one buddy.

        Carly, head of general surgery is an amazing achievement! I agree that inspiration can come from anywhere. I’m a mentor in globally recognized personal growth program and it’s very common for someone to have fictional characters or celebrities as their role models. It’s obviously worked out well for you, keep it up! :)

  8. I’ll go to someone that doesn’t have directors plan their schedules and you won’t operate on me unless you have a degree JS

  9. I disagree with some of this. You have to remember that all these shows don’t depict day after day. Some episodes there are time lapses, maybe one or two to three weeks, so if you see an intern or resident apart of a big surgery, that doesn’t mean they did one the day before also. And I can clearly remember interns getirng sent to run labs and do scut work so I disagree with that to. However, I do think that bc it is a show they relationships and doctoring is a little looser than in real life. But you also have to remember that different hospitals do different things. Not every med school is the same. But with all that being said, it is a show and that’s the key factor.

    1. that’s a pretty inaccurate statement- I’ve been through General surgery training and Greys is absurd. All surgical residencies are basically the same because they have to follow guidelines set but the ACGME. there are differences (malignant vs Cush programs) but the structure is the same.

  10. I’m not a surgical resident or in med school, but I am in nursing school. I love Grey’s Anatomy, but have to agree with the above comment that most of the things I see doctors on this show do are not a doctor’s responsibility in real life. They don’t do IVs. there are a lot of scenes that you see doctors doing a nurse’s job. I can’t think of all them, but one episode comes to mind. webber was in the hospital after hitting his head and being electrocuted. bailey was trying to encourage him to use an incentive spirometer. – that would not be her job. She’s a surgeon. That would be a the duty of the nurse; the teaching, encouraging, and evaluating. I still love this show! I went through 10 seasons on Neflix in 2 months and am currently watching season 11 on TV

    1. I agree, there are a few scenes where surgeons are doing a nurse’s job, but that Bailey example…she wasn’t asking him to take this or do that as his “nurse”. She was telling him to do those things because she wanted him to live. He is her mentor, her best friend, her teacher, father-like figure, and her colleague. She was doig those things because she didn’t want to see him die. He is a part of her life and she didn’t want to lose him.

  11. So weirdly… I think watching this show has actually inspired me to go into the medical field + my own recent stint in hospital. Obviously I’m not delusional enough to believe that Grey’s represents the life correctly – but maybe for me the show gave me that sense that they’re doing something useful and helpful and remarkable, which built my interest. It’s definitely interesting to read the comments from med students and nursing students – very helpful for me. I’m currently doing as much research as I can to help me decide what is the best direction for me in terms of medicine. Thanks all

    1. I feel the same way, I feel inspired, Being a doctor is remarkable and rewarding and needed in the world. Greys actually inspired me to potentially pursue a career in medicine one day and just to go for it :)

  12. I absolutely love this show this show inspired to want to pursue a career in medicine it’s the best. you don’t know life until you watch Grey’s Anatomy

  13. What bothers me most about the show, aside from its medical faux pas, is the portrayal of nurses as ignorant subordinates with little to no medical knowledge. As an RN at a local hospital, I know several of the non-surgical procedures shown on the show (such as lab draws, IV sticks, defibrillation, and physical assessment) are done mainly by nurses. Not to say that doctors don’t do anything–They order essential labs and tests and round with nurses and other ancillary staff to determine the best plan of care for the patient. Doctors and nurses (as well as other ancillary staff, such as PT, OT, speech, and dietary) are a team. We work in the best interest of the patient, not to undermine or insult each other.

    1. I’m not a nurse, but I’m considering becoming one. I noticed that too! They talk about the nurses so detrimentally, don’t call them by name, and say things like “ugh, I hate nurses”. Like, where would you be without them? And unfortunately, I know that doctors in real life sometimes disrespect their nurses. They do a lot more than the show portrays. It makes me sooo mad. But I like the show anyway, haha

    2. They also address that the surgeons are wrong for saying those things. The fact that you feel annoyed that they say those things, could have been the emotion they were going after. They also depict the nurses sometimes teaching the surgical interns what to do. I think Shonda is brilliant in the way that she chooses to evoke emotion, It’s not all surface thinking and spoon fed..

  14. I have just started watching grey ‘ s anatomy and I know that it depicts rough times and glittery times…it may not be so in real life..but I’m on my way to pursuing a medical career .. so much so that I wanted to watch this show to just have an off set experience of what I would have to deal with or see or get an idea of what i would have to deal with… I want to do obstetrics / gynecology… I know medicine is rough but I want to know and believe that I can do it… do you have to be a “bright spark ” to be able to do medicine ?

  15. hi, I have always wanted to be a doctor.
    am a senior now and am planning to go to med. school.
    and I would love to do my internship somewhere in the US.
    would that be possible? what are the requirements??
    please help!!

  16. I have worked in hospitals, clinics and Dr.s offices. I started as a Nurse Assistant, became a EMT and then became an RN. Working in the medical field is a blessing and a curse. Grey’s Anatomy captures that feeling well. While they portray things a little more dramatic than real life, the point they are getting across is a very real one. Life is messy and medicine is mostly knowledge and guess work combined. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t see changes in procedure and protocol (just like any other field of science) … I love GA and for all their inaccuracies (medical and life as a health care professional) I find the show entertaining! I think it’s important we all understand it’s a drama and therefore must maintain some level of fantasy. Otherwise who would want to watch it? So for those of you whom GA has inspired to work in Healthcare I welcome you and warn you, for all the excitement we actually see in the hospital, there is just as much boredom and holding a life in your hands is scary, mesmerizing, and a high like none other. Sarah Ramierez’s character, Callie, made a comment on the show “It’s like high school with scalpels” … This comment is not unfounded. There are cliques, romances, lies, mistakes, and ultimately a mix of personalities that conflict with each other on some level. Just like in any other forum where you have to mesh your personality with 1000 different other types. It’s not easy, it’s not glamorous and it is definitely not always fun.

  17. I’m also planning on attending med school, having been greatly influenced by Grey’s as well as personal experiences with doctors and hospitals. My question is do attendings and residents treat interns like scum as depicted in the show?

  18. I think in case the idea of being a surgeon ever crosses your mind then Grey’s Anatomy can be a good stimulus

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  20. I think that it’s a great TV series. I’m in high school and have been inspired to go down the path of medicine ( even though I’m only a high school freshman ) I’ve been doing some research, and have found that it is nothing like Grey’s. But doesn’t mean I will give up. It’s all about helping people, not the money anyways. Besides, my whole family went into medicine of some form.

  21. I’ve done some more research, and stastistics show that doctors only have messy handwriting because they know that no one else is gonna be reading it. It’s meant for them and them alone. They are not publishing a paper. I have very messy handwriting. That’s not gonna change anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean I cant become a doctor. Anyone else have bad handwriting, too?

  22. Hey! I’m a senior in high school, and while I know I’m a long ways away from being a resident, I was curious as to where you do/did yours at. I’m trying to research, but I’m not getting any type of info that I need. On the show, the residents get to be involved in many different types of surgery and then determine their specialty in their 5th year. But every hospitals website that I look at makes you automatically pick a certain type of surgery for your residency, and then you can choose something else for your fellowship. So I was just curious as to how that worked for you, and where you are/where at. Thank you!

    1. Hey –

      I am entering surgery residency in July. How it works is after medical school, you can apply to general surgery (5 years), orthopedic surgery (5 years), or neurosurgery (7 years) for residency. If you go for general surgery residency, after you graduate THAT, you can do a fellowship in things like plastic surgery, vascular surgery, trauma, breast, oncologic, etc. Hope this helps. Good luck. :)

  23. I worked at The Natural History Museum (London), around the time that ‘Friends’ aired. I laughed when Ross was called in for a exhibition problem. Were I worked, scientists (of the various disciplines) were squirreled away in their labs: looking down microscopes, writing papers, doing research and conservation work. The people who concerned themselves with the exhibits, were the gallery management teams. The two groups cross-fertilized maybe on some consultations of the exhibits, that’s all!

    I can see that GA, would make humungous mistakes, one thing that irks me, is the Doctors are so often wearing scrubs and caps with earrings (even the dangly kind) which would imply to me that they are either prepping for or finished an op, in the UK, you have to remove all jewelry, if not, they have to be taped over.

  24. I love the show and yes there are things that don’t line up. I think humm that’s not what it looks like in real life but overall I like the storyline and remind myself it’s a drama. I think the unsecured ETTube is what gets me the most. Just because it’s soo dangerous

  25. Ok literally everyone needs to chill. It’s called a drama for a reason. The show is scripted, do you really expect them to do everything like actual doctors? If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.

    1. No one needs to chill. It is interesting and the point of the article to tell INTERESTED people what the differences are between tv and reality in a hospital. If you are not interested in that, then you should not have read the article, let alone commented. To title your comment ANGRY is very telling.

  26. It was alittle annoying reading this lol but after reading the comments I can understand where you all are coming from. I’m no where involved in the medical field, I just love the show, so much so that I watch bloopers and behind the scenes footage and so on. If I were in the medical field I would probably watch the show and observe the discrepancies the way you all do just like I do when characters are in my field lol. I find it interesting that in some ways Shonda tries to be medically correct the way she does consult with real doctors to see if some of the outrageous cases she portrays for drama could actually happen and how she employs real doctors to teach the actors how to hold instruments and do some procedures. But then she’ll over look small details like what other commenters said about some tape securing whatever in the OR. Lol. Then it all comes into prospective when you learn that most of the time the actors have no idea what they’re saying when they are spewing all this medical info lol. They actually took some of their actual lines and asked what it meant and they had no idea. Lol it hilarious and all for show.

  27. I am not even close to medical field or ever will be…. But I love this show because it let’s me be a surgeon for a day or several seasons… It brings out the little desire for medical school and stays at that. I’m very aware it’s not real but that’s OK I’ll never pursuit the real thing I’ll just watch Grey’s :)

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  29. I like this show and I have watched the first 4 or 5 seasons several times. What bothers me is that the interns will talk about their personal lives in the patients rooms with the other interns. In a real hospital you do not hear about the interns love life at all. You talk medical information they need to know and that is it. I have also caught them talking about patients in front of other patients… really? There is a reason that privacy acts are active in medical care. You DO NOT have room to be sharing things about other patients medical care. It also bothers me how in several episodes and scenarios they will go into the patients room, the patient will code, hurt their head, or something “tragic” and then all of a sudden it becomes so urgent that they have to have surgery right away.

  30. I know greys is not realistic, but I didn’t expect it to be. If the show was realistic, no one would watch it. you just have to appreciate it for what it is. I wish I always had the perfect thing to say at any given moment and it would be nice if life was always that exciting, but then that’s why we watch tv, to escape the everyday.

  31. I absolutely love Grey’s Anatomy and ive been watching it from the start. but of course, being in the medical field, some things definitely bother me. I am a physical therapist, and even this recent season they showed surgeons doing things that they would never do. When Dr. Sheperd tries to get that patient to walk to the chair from the bed after surgery…..not only were the biomechanics HORRIFIC, it is something they would never do, that is a PT’s job. Same with a few seasons ago when Callie is treating the patient with an amputee and creates the bionic leg for him, she would never be rehabing him. As stated above, same goes for the surgeons doing a lot of what nurses do…but at least nurses are mentioned in the show!

  32. Ok so this annoyed the heck out of me. This show was not made to get surgical interns ready for there residency it’s just like any other hospital show even ER wasn’t legit if your looking for the real deal watch a documentary . Have a open mind that everything you watch on tv isn’t real and if it was showing the exact stuff that surgical interns did the show would probably get no ratings and be very boring. I’m in the nursing program right now and I watch Chicago med all the time but I don’t expect for it to be like that once I graduate and get my dream job.

  33. Any one can give me real advice about what it is really like being / starting / choosing to become a surgeon!!!!! i have to apply to collage next year !!!! i really want to be alot in oppression’s !! till now i wanted to become a midwife but real confused now

  34. I’m just glad they depict nurses correctly (except the sleazy S.T.I. nurse that was laid off during the merge. I would like to think all nurses are down right wholesome and not like her lol! )…don’t mess with the NURSES!!! Most of the time during my clinical rotations in the hospital, I saw that the nurses really run the show during patient care. Most of the time physicians are way too busy for the one-on-one ADL care or close monitoring that the show depicts pre and post op. I kind of get irritated when the physicians depicted in the show do the nurses jobs, treat them like crap, or belittle them…but it is a fun show and I do enjoy calling out incorrect procedure protocol or guessing what a patients diagnosis is and what will happen next! lol! :)

  35. When all else fails…I like to watch Nurse Jackie and pretend she not a self inflicted, drug addicted neurotic nurse in denial…lol other than that, she’s bad ass…

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