Created By: Llort on June 5, 2011

Always A Zebra

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"When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don't expect to see a zebra"
-- Dr. Theodore Woodward

In the genre of medical drama, Occam's Razor is disregarded and writers usually go for the most unusual type of diagnosis available. This differs greatly from real life where a cough is usually just a cough.

The etymology of this trope name comes from the quote at the top of the page, medical students are all told to "think horses, not zebras".

However, this trope is justified in the sense that a mere stomach flu would make for some real boring TV.

One of the most notorious offenders of this trope is House, M.D., yet nearly every medical mystery show has at least one far fetched plot.
Community Feedback Replies: 16
  • June 5, 2011
    Stratadrake
    The goal of a trope title is to be clear at a glance to somebody who's never seen the term before. So ... "always a zebra" is utterly opaque and requiring somebody to familiarize themself with the page quote to make the connection at all is not a good move.
  • June 5, 2011
    SKJAM
    Least Likely Diagnosis would be clearer, but loses the flavor.
  • June 5, 2011
    Egak
    "Think Zebras, Not Horses"
  • June 6, 2011
    Duckay
    See also Televisually Transmitted Disease. Actually, I'm not sure how these are distinct. I think Televisually Transmitted Disease could use some redirects, though.
  • June 6, 2011
    Hadashi
    • Resulted in a lot of people with meningitis getting miss-diagnosed a couple of years ago, to the point there was a nation-wide campaign (if I remember). Can be the same with other serious diseases.

    I like Least Likely Diagnosis
  • June 6, 2011
    Aielyn
    Justified in House MD, as if a case is mysterious enough to reach House, it generally means it's not a "Horse". In fact, I seem to recall this very fact being discussed in one episode - that if a case reaches House, then it's not a typical case, by virtue of the fact that it reached him.
  • June 6, 2011
    jaytee
    The page quote is paraphrased, although Woodward did originate it. The actual quote was "Don't look for zebras on Greene Street"; Greene Street being the location of the med school he was teaching at.

    Not only is it justified on House, but it's lampshaded constantly (sometimes by name).

    Related to Always Murder.
  • June 6, 2011
    jaytee
    I also recall this being invoked on Scrubs... It may have been the House parody episode (resident Dr Jerk Perry Cox hurts his leg and has to walk around with a cane, insulting people and making diagnoses).
  • June 6, 2011
    Dcoetzee
    Thirding Least Likely Diagnosis. Also I think we already have something similar...
  • June 6, 2011
    randomsurfer
    Even though I've never seen more than half an episode of House in my life, one thing I know: at some point they always diagnose lupus. And it's never lupus...except the one time it was.
  • June 6, 2011
    Stratadrake
    Televisually Transmitted Disease has the exact same page quote. It is definitely similar, but differs in that this is about the initial diagnosis, whereas TTD is about the actual cause.
  • June 6, 2011
    LeeM
    "The goal of a trope title is to be clear at a glance to somebody who's never seen the term before."

    Seriously, though?!
  • June 7, 2011
    Stratadrake
    Meaning, the goal is to make a trope easy to guess from its title alone. If the trope title isn't a pre-existing, common term that everyone already knows (one should never just assume it is), then it needs to be intuitive or people may end up linking it from the wrong places simply because of what they thought the words meant.

    For example, if I heard the term "always a zebra" with no context, I'd probably get mental images of African safari expeditions or urban zoos.
  • June 7, 2011
    Hadashi
    "The goal of a trope title is to be clear at a glance to somebody who's never seen the term before."

    Hah, yeah. That'll be the day. We'd have to change half of them.
  • July 3, 2011
    Dragon573
    I have to agree on that point. Trope titles are unclear already. For example, Karma Houdini is only for villainous examples. I don't know about you, but when I think "Houdini" I don't generally think of mass murderers or Evil Overlords (unless I was just playing Bioshock, but that's beside point). Always A Zebra makes sense unless you deliberately try to take things literally, although I would caution that it could also be taken to mean any unlikely thing taking place instead of a likely scenario, rather than just a medical diagnosis.
  • July 3, 2011
    Stratadrake
    ...And the "zebra" part is still a specific piece of jargon not widely known outside of medical school.
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