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They've studied anatomy, but first aid?

- February 16, 2010

Hugh Laurie in House: He only looks like he knows what he's doing.

Seizure victims would do well to stay clear of Samaritans who have learned their first aid from television medical dramas like ER or House.

In more than half the epileptic seizures depicted by Grey’s Anatomy, House, Private Practice, and in the last five seasons of ER, the scriptwriters got the medical response wrong, a study by Dalhousie researchers has concluded. 

“If someone was to base their first aid management on medical television shows and try to help someone out, they might be doing some harm,” said Andrew Moeller, a third-year Dalhousie Medical student who led the study’s four-member research team.

Given the influence of the medium, the researchers are calling on people with epilepsy to lobby the television industry to insist on proper first aid responses to seizures shown in small screen dramas.

To obtain the findings, Mr. Moeller watched 280 hours of television medical drama including every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, House, Private Practice, and the last five seasons of ER. He said he started his viewing marathon in January 2009, watching a program every two days, and then ramped up his screen time to five episodes a day, last summer.

“At the end of the summer it was getting to crunch time, so I was watching about 14 hours of TV a day,” he said.

“If someone was to base their first aid management on medical television shows and try to help someone out, they might be doing some harm.”

-- Andrew Moeller 

At first, Moeller said, he attracted some envy for coming up with a research project that entailed life as a couch potato, “but by the end, it was a lot of TV,” he said. He tallied 364 episodes at 44 minutes apiece. When he found a clip showing a seizure, he copied it and sent it to his three research partners: Dr. R. Mark Sadler, a Dalhousie epileptologist, Dr. Jeremy Moeller, Mr. Moeller’s brother and a neurologist, now completing a two-year fellowship at Columbia University in New York, and Susan Rahey, the research coordinator for the Epilepsy Program, supported by the divisions of neurology and neurosurgery in the Department of Medicine at Dalhousie and Capital Health.

They reviewed the clips and compared the dramatic action against the Epilepsy Foundation’s Guidelines for Seizure First Aid.

Fifty-nine seizures were found in the plot lines, and 46 per cent of the dramatized medical responses by the doctor and nurse actors were considered inappropriate. They noted such poor medical form as holding a patient down, attempting to stop involuntary movement, and  putting something in a patient’s mouth while a seizure was in progress.

In about 29 per cent of the cases, the dramatic action was medically correct. The remaining seizure incidents were considered indeterminate, in terms of the appropriateness of the pseudo-medical response, because they were on screen too briefly to judge.

Mr. Moeller has been amazed by the response of the media. “I just Googled my name, plus ‘seizure’ and it’s everywhere, “ he said.

The research will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 62nd meeting in April. It was one of 20 research offerings, selected from more than 2,000, to be released as an abstract, in advance of the meeting.


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