Medical T.V. Is Bad For Your Health

Despite our culture’s “problematic” relationship with personal health (yes, I’m straining to be this diplomatic), we sure do like our medical T.V. There’s the news of course, the doctor talk shows, and the dramas: House, HawthoRNe, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice… (I have no doubt I’m missing some.) It’s one of those head scratchers – kind of like our culture’s current penchant for food T.V even though the average American spends less time cooking than ever these days. When it comes to the news, they make anything and everything sound like an imminent emergency. (Swine flu, anyone?) As for the dramas, there are the good looking people, romantic plotlines, feverish action, and tear-jerking narratives. More to the point, however, you have bizarre assortments of random medical oddities, the suspense leading up to the eventual diagnoses, and the inevitable drama surrounding characters’ medical treatments and tragedies. It’s enough to pique anyone’s curiosity, but some interesting research shows that we’re getting more than we bargained for from our entertainment.

In a recently published study, a University of Rhode Island professor shares the results of a survey that measured television viewing, health anxiety and life satisfaction. (Hint: this doesn’t end well.) The subjects were 274 students, ages 18-31, from the University of Alabama’s College of Communications. The researchers didn’t share the purpose of the study with survey participants. Study results showed a connection between television watching and an amplified perception of health risks. Not only did television viewing increase viewers’ belief in the likelihood of those health risks; it actually decreased viewers’ sense of “self-efficacy in maintaining personal health.” The study further indicated a related decrease in life satisfaction.

So, all this “informative” and entertainment programming ends up making us more concerned for our health and less convinced we can do anything about it. Isn’t that rich? I’ve said for years that we worry about the wrong things. We go into a full-blown panic over swine flu but simply keep on keepin’ on when it comes to the real health threats in our country: chronic lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Is it the media’s preoccupation with the strange and novel? Is it mere desensitization after hearing the standard health messages so many times? Is it those infernal pharma commercials? As the study author noted, the age group she surveyed is the most likely to feel healthy. “I suspect that if I surveyed a more general population the dissatisfaction would be even higher,” she said.

What exactly is going on here?

The study’s author doesn’t claim to know the why of it, and I won’t claim to pinpoint it either. (My sense is it’s multiple influences anyway.) Yes, for all the good stuff T.V. might offer, I think it can do a number on our perception of reality – all angles of it, health being no exception. There are so many mixed messages out there, erroneous information, unnecessary agitation. And that’s just the news and talk shows! Add the wrenching and off the wall health experiences of viewers’ favorite characters, and it can seem like some risk to life and limb is lurking at every turn. (No matter that a condition is a one in a million. The emotional picture makes it feel more real than a stunning statistic ever could.)

Whatever the why, I think the easy solution is to turn it off and hone in on our own lives and physical well-being. (Grip on reality, anyone?) More subtly, I think we need to be more reflective about the messages we receive and how they affect us – from the T.V. and otherwise. We choose what we bring into our lives and what fills the hours of our day. Is it life giving? Is it encouraging? Does it feed our sense of well-being and self-efficacy?

The study’s author suggests that learning too much about health conditions and risks weighs us down, that ignorance might be bliss. I don’t subscribe to that notion. I’m fully convinced that you can be knowledgeable and satisfied, well-informed and empowered. It’s not just information of course but what you choose to do with it.

Let me turn it over to you. What’s your take on the associations revealed in this study? Thoughts? Rants? Jokes? Cautionary tales? (Just kidding.) Be sure to add your perspective, and have a good weekend, everyone!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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63 thoughts on “Medical T.V. Is Bad For Your Health”

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  1. I second the easy solution and turn it off. I canceled cable four months ago and am much better for it. Too much input that we don’t need. Those medical dramas are ridiculous.

    1. We canceled our dish a couple of months ago as well. Not that I needed it but this article certainly confirms that we made the right decision.

      1. I agree with both of you as well. My husband and I have not had a cable connection for 8 years (and our ancient tv doesn’t pick up any broadcast channels either) and we do not miss it. We watch a movie on dvd now and then and aside from that the TV never goes on… who has time for it? We’re too busy running around outside 😀

    2. Ditto – I canceled cable 15 years ago. Now, I have no idea how I’d fit TV into my life even if I wanted to.

      And I don’t want to – why waste the precious few hours we have watching someone else live, instead of living ourselves?

  2. I HATE the TV shows. I’m a physician, and on most of ’em (HOUSE, particularly) the medicine is just so…..LAME.

    We have a saying in medicine: if you hear hoofbeats, think ‘horse’ not ‘zebra.’ But more and more, medicine is practiced as if every condition were a zebra, necessitating expensive tests—the “million-dollar workup.” All just in case we miss the one zebra in lifetime of herds of horses and get sued.

    Of course, I *am* rather addicted to LAW AND ORDER. But that’s because I’m a doctor, Jim, not a lawyer!

  3. Well, at least people who watch House should never be concerned about having Lupus…
    Jokes aside though, I love that show, and I definitely don’t think I’m any kind of hypochondriac. Most of the diseases that people end up having on that show are so ridiculously rare (and the ways they contract them are to).
    The problem isn’t the TV shows– it’s that people are incapable of thinking for themselves.

    1. “The problem isn’t the TV shows– it’s that people are incapable of thinking for themselves.”

      That is the greatest thing I’ve heard (read, I suppose) in a long time.

  4. There are two things that baffle me about all the back and forth information on these shows, especially concerning the “informational” shows like The Doctors and Dr. Whos-it’s own show (the one that was an Oprah spinoff…can’t remember):

    1. People hear that something is bad for them one day, then suddenly good for them 2 months later. An example that comes to mind is egg consumption. Is it good? Is it bad? People say “who knows what’s good or bad anymore?” and then proceed to eat a Snickers instead of an egg anyway.

    2. People taking the information they hear on those shows and putting the ideas into practice in all the wrong ways. Going back to the Snickers bar, I had someone tell me at a movie that the almond Snickers was “healthier” (and used that word exactly in describing it) than the regular Snickers, because almonds are healthier for you than peanuts. Well, okay, almonds are better than peanuts nutritionally. When wrapped in 100 other processed ingredients and sealed in a little plastic bag labelled “Snickers,” neither are “healthy”.

    Having the information isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having the information and drawing completely assinine conclusions from it is where people’s good intentions pave their own little road to health-loss-hell.

    1. That person was right. After all, you are better off being shot with a .22 calibre bullet than a .44….still, not getting shot in the first place is even better.

  5. I think it’s funny how people take TV so seriously. Do you remember when you were a kid and scary show came on. Your parents reassured you it was just a movie, a man in a costume, and loud music to get people scared? Same concept! It’s entertainment, it’s people in costumes, with props, and love triangles. These people are not doctors, they read lines. I think it’s funny that people get so crazy about the dangers of this and that.

  6. Mark,
    This is an association, from the way you describe it. People who are more anxious about health in general might be more likely to watch these shows. People weren’t randomly assigned to watchthese shows or not. You vannot infer causality here, from the way you describe the study. If there was random assignment to TV watching, please correct me.

  7. In addition, the average public person who does not frequent a hospital or ER all that often – gets lulled into a sense of personal importance to any medical professional they come into contact with… From watching all these ‘drama’ episodes, the average person believes they are the most important person to that Doctor, nurse or whatever at that point in time. While in reality, as most people who have been there and done that realize quickly, we are just another number in there long line of day in/day out patients with all the same problems, complaints, and attitudes.. while they are there to help us and quite a few do in fact go out of their way.. the vast majority are passing the time just like any other job in any other profession..

    1. While I’m not so sure that it’s a “vast majority” of physicians that see patients as numbers, I fully understand why you’d think and write this. It’s awful that some patients feel like one of many, but this is why taking the time to find the right doctor is so important. If you have a great doctor, tell friends and family. They will thank you later when they get quality care. Great doctors are out there, sometimes it just takes some looking.

  8. I definitely agree, turn it off! I have been without cable for a few months as well now and have enjoyed so much more of my life. I find that the less you watch, the less you want to watch. I know all of my favorites from last year have started up, and I watch a couple online, but they do not consume-all anymore. Also watching less or no TV, you don’t see all of the commercials for other shows and movies that look good. I totally enjoy going to the theatre and wathcing a good movie, but I barely know what’s out right now, and I don’t mind at all. Saves me money not going to a movie every other wknd and paying 60 bucks a month for cable!

  9. What is the comparison to lifestyle if we shut it all off…wait….if we don’t know what is going on, how do we stop the crooks from ruining the world…the responsibility aspect of being on this Earth? …meaning reference to information, not fiction, so more on the internet, and sorting out truth and fiction from information, till it becomes too much of your day, and bothers you, but folks need to know…or, more BP and oil spills, instead of wind and solar, and Big Banksters and Wall Street and the Feds, and more towers imploding.
    I get it, but where is the balance? We have to know something….or do we…if we trust, will it all be as we envision it?

    1. I love House too, but I don’t feel badly about watching it. I watch it for the drama side and seeing some cool (all be it mostly inaccurate)medical stuff. Definitely don’t watch it looking for medical advice.

      This article is great,and right on for how many people get duped into believing this stuff (especially those Doctor talk shows- EEK!). For us Primals, we can watch some of this stuff for entertainment and weed out the CW garbage (of which there is a LOT!).

      Thanks for another great post, Mark!

  10. I think the worst part of TV is the constant stream of ads for the pharmaceuticals – enocuraging people that some pill is the answer to their problems.
    Groucho Marx said they “televison is very educational – whenever someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book”.

  11. You hit the nail on the head with this one, Mark. Well said. TV does change our perception of reality and it’s damaging to our lives in more ways than just health. And I absolutely agree that the best way to correct this is to not only turn off the TV (or get rid of it), but to focus on our own lives instead.

    If the statistics are true about the amount of time the average American spends watching TV, then the average American has it within themselves to radically improve their lifestyle by replacing TV with something more fulfilling.

    1. Keep in mind that this is an association – people who are more anxious in general might tend to watch these shows – we don’t know if watching this shows actually causes anything..

  12. I’ll rant if you’re asking…

    The reason people piss away their health is because they think it’s normal. I was talking to an older coworker whose husband is diabetic. I was trying to encourage her to eat better so she wouldn’t end up like her husband, but she said it was inevitable that she would get diabetes as well. “It’s what happens to old people”. Diabetes was rare only 100 years ago and now it’s just a part of getting old!

    I was at the dentist and overheard a large family talking about their exams. As each child came back to the waiting room they reported on how many cavities they had. “I had one”, “Aww, I had three”, “Two for me”.

    They treated it like a game; I couldn’t effing believe it. My daughter has zero cavities and if she get’s even one it will be a major event with reviews of dental hygiene and diet.

    People have been so sick for so long they don’t even know what being healthy is anymore. Even the medical community doesn’t know. Our culture is based on sickness and even our entertainment reflects it.

    1. Exactly. Just about every morning I get to hear two of my co-workers compare their illnesses and it’s like a game of one-up-manship. It’s like my mother once said about her grandmother–she “enjoyed” poor health.

      I wish our culture could find an *ahem* healthier way for people to get attention than illness!

  13. I gave away all my televisions more than 5 years ago. I don’t think I’ve been missing anything.

    Is that fictional parody of a news show, featuring fake journalists and screaming loonies, still on? I think it was called Fox News.

    1. They made an equally absurd spin off called MSNBC. 😉

      Y’know back in the good ole days the greatest news guys would pride themselves on NEVER letting their opinion or interpretation get in the way of the facts…

  14. It always grated my nerves to see the bad techniques those TV docs exibit during procedures.

    HATE those med commercials. “I’m trusting my heart to Lipitor”. ARG!! Or the big actor dude shilling diabetic supplies. Maybe he wouldn’t be a diabetic if he lost about a 100 lbs! Or Sally Fields telling us how we really need some Boniva to strenghten our bones. I huess she hasn’t read the studies showing they CAUSE fractures, jaw necrosis etc. And the Viagra commercials really get me. They make it look like everyone over 40 needs some “help”. Every young person must think we’re all washed up in the bedroom. Then they take popular tunes from our youth and associate them with that garbage.
    Drug commercials should be banned.

  15. Boy am I glad I live in the UK, we don’t have commercials like that!

    You are right Mark, timely reminder for me too; it’s up to us what we bring into our days, how life-enhancing those things are.

    We watch very little, we have a recorder and use that to watch what we really like the look of fast-forwarding any adverts – usually sport or mysteries to solve along with some sci-fi for a bit of escapism!

    Over here we seem to specialize in ‘gritty’ social drama (although Medical dramas are very popular too) the purpose of which would appear to be to depress the entire population – or perhaps it’s actually reverse psychology at play – the life on screen is so dismal your own life appears better … mmm wonder if that’s the intention with medical dramas …nope, me thinks it more to do with selling more pharmaceuticals and generating more patients – I’m becoming very cynical.

  16. My bestfriend loves medical shows. I watch them mostly b/c she likes them so much. However, I think that what you see on the shows is far from reality. Has anyone noticed there is never a hospital bill,M.D. are primary care givers and are so avalible. I work in a hospital and I know that this is fake as can be. All of those health alerts on tv are as useful as when Pres. Bush had the color coded terror alert thing going off like a x-mas tree. My advice is pay not real attention to the medcal crazies and enjoy the drama with all the hot looking ppl.

  17. With the average person watching some 5 hours of television per day and frequently not taking time to actually learn about managing their own health, television is sadly a common source of very erroneous information on health.

    Whether it be poor medicine in dramas about health or sensationalism related to health in shows dispensing actual medical information, the public is being fed selective pieces of information so it is not at all surprising that they would feel disempowered and disproportionately concerned about relatively obscure health risks.

  18. I caught a few minutes of Dr. Oz last night and was appalled but felt compelled to watch to learn what people are being told out there. I need to have the proper mis-education along with them, I suppose, in order to help educate them to the contrary! I often don’t realize what information is swirling around out there until someone says “I heard on Dr. Oz…”

  19. I stopped watching tv in 1968. Then I started again, fifty years later, ie two years ago, because my partner bought a big wide screen tv.

    But then we discovered that there’s nothing on worth watching.

    Now we just watch movies that we get through netflix, and a few PBS shows.

    1. Kinda the same here, minus a few years. My wife and I are movie buffs now. We haven’t watched regular programing since the presidential debates… aside from that I don’t remember the last thing we watched.

  20. Oh wait. That was forty years later. I thought I wasn’t that old!

  21. Oh, good heavens…can I relate to this post. My oldest step-daughter falls neatly into the age range of this study and watches a lot of “medical” television – she has The Learning Channel on almost non-stop. This summer we were set to go camping with the majority of our children (all but one of which are now grown) and spend one day at the lake. My step-daughter announced that she and our 11-month-old grandson would NOT be stepping foot in the lake, much less swimming, because she saw a show on TLC about a brain-eating amoeba that lives in lakes.

    Her father and I simply cracked up when she told us that and pointed out that not only we, but she and the rest of our kids (and other family members), have been swimming in lakes our entire lives and never once have we had our brains eaten by an amoeba (although we wondered what had happened to HERS for awhile during the teen years). No matter, she refused – because they’re EVERYWHERE, don’t you know. What a shame that my grandson may never have the pleasure of swimming in a lake because of a stupid, sensationalized television show.

    1. I’ve heard about those. You have to get the water way up your nose (almost drown) to get that.

      If it really bothers her, she just shouldn’t dip her head under the water.

      And perhaps the primal diet would afford her some protections? 😉

  22. I virtually never watch TV these days, unless it’s a sporting event (football) or the odd History Channel program, or something similar. Just have better things to do with my time.

  23. I haven’t had cable for almost eight years, and I don’t miss it at all. I find that there are endless interesting, enriching and healthful activities that one can pursue to fill one’s time, but it all comes down to personal priorities. I would rather spend 1-2 hours a day getting fresh air and exercise, preparing healthful meals, enjoying the company of my friends and loved ones and catching up on sleep than to be inundated with images and advertising. But that’s just me 🙂

  24. I’m not surprised by this study. I read about a study a few years ago that said that people who watched a lot of police shows (Law & Order, etc) believed they were more likely to be the victim of a crime than was actually likely. Listen to something enough and you will start to believe it!

  25. Getting rid of television was the next best thing to adopting Primal living for improving my quality of life.

  26. This is just a small part of a larger problem with the media in general. Sensationalism sells. Negativity sells. Giving people something to be worked up about sells.

    I don’t think anything has really changed since Thomas Jefferson’s adroit remarks about newspapers except that we have improved our technology.

  27. TV programming is just that…PROGRAMMING. The pace of the editing, hypnotic background music, plotlines embedded at the suggestion of public agencies, commercials which will be seen hundreds (if not thousands) of times by regular viewers; all these contribute to produce the desired result.

  28. I’m like most of the other respondents. I gave up Direct over two years ago. I bought a really nice sleeping bag, equal to two months of Direct $$, which I enjoy far more than two months of TV.

    This past week I watched a live stream from CNN on the computer of the Chilean rescue operation.

  29. You mean there are channels other than Cbeebies and Playhouse Disney?

    Nah… don’t believe it.

  30. I do not watch TV anymore, however, I find that the internet has become worse than TV (for me at least). I spend countless hours on here… I need to get out and live!

  31. I HATE TV.

    Unfortunately my husband is addicted to everything and anything on TV.
    We watch the newest movies that come out on DVD together, but that is about it for me.

    I wish I could walk 4 hours through the forest every day but we live an hour drive away from the forest and we just don’t have the budget for gas like that.

    Hopefully, winter will come soon and I’ll be able to go outside and OWN the streets and won’t see a million Moms and their kids out there since they all seem to hate winter…hehe.

  32. Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively ‘worse’ by a separate group of participants. Estimates of severity also positively correlated with popular print media frequency in both student populations.

  33. Canceled my cable 2 years ago, – never looked back. I have WDHDTV to see the movie when appropriate, and that is it.

    I quit TV because I figured it is a dangerous propaganda, a “programming” where they program us into easily manipulated zombies.

    I had heard predictions that quitting TV would make me into zombie. It had, in a way, because without TV one is definitely not the same specie. I just like it better this way, I like to think for myself, disregarding anything talking heads have to say.

  34. I have cable but only have the music channels – Wonderful Music: Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, Renaissance dance music, Albinoni, and lots more!!

  35. Funny, this reminds me that I used to share a house with a chronic hypochondriac while I was in college, and things literally got so bad with her that she forbade all of us who lived there to watch House or Scrubs, because she “would just rather not know about conditions I might have.”

    So, okay, we’re all knee-deep in terrible, misguiding information, I’ll concede that. But really, the issue has got to be that so many people just REFUSE to develop a filter! What gives?!