Artistic License Medicine

aka: You Fail Your Medical Boards Forever
Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar fame joined House during Season 4, when his character refused to leave after getting fired during tryouts (in the House universe, hospitals choose doctors the same way high schools choose cheerleaders).
— From this Cracked article.

Injuries or illnesses requiring medical attention are a ubiquitous feature of fiction. With very few exceptions, even those who write medical dramas are not doctors themselves. Many have real doctors as consultants, but even with that there are still things that would never happen in real life that make it into a show to preserve Rule of Drama.

These inaccuracies can be especially dangerous if presented as accurate through medical series, leading to well-meaning bystanders causing more harm than anything else. When in doubt, call the professionals.

May be related to Artistic License - Biology. See also Artistic License - Pharmacology.


The following examples do not fit the subtropes:

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    Comic Books 
  • In DC's latest reboot, Superman performs surgery on Lois Lane to save her from a gunshot wound. And he does every step past the obvious one of using his X-Ray vision as wrong as he can. He starts by putting gloves on—and then immediately cutting a hole in them for the only part he actually touches her. Then instead of removing the bullet, he uses his heat vision to vaporize it and then uses that same supervision to cauterize the wound shut. The writer is apparently unaware that heating lead to the point of vaporizing it would have cooked Lois from the inside out, and that cauterizing a wound is not the same thing as welding metal together—it isn't a quick healing that doesn't leave a scar so much as it is a fast way to seal bleeding wounds, and cauterizing two pieces of skin like that would ensure they don't heal together at all.

    Fan Fiction 
  • In Not as Planned, someone dies from "catching a bad cold from being out in the rain". The common cold comes from a virus, not from cold weather. The setting is so primitive, the characters would know nothing about viruses. It is also possible that the cold weather weakened the immune system so the viral cold became deadly. Extreme cold temperatures can cause hypothermia, which has different symptoms.
  • In Travels of the Trifecta when Paul faints after the Canalave Gym battle, he stays unconscious for at least a few hours, which would be an abnormally long time in real life and would be a sign of something much more severe than exhaustion and influenza/severe cold. Possibly justified by his terminal chronic illness that is revealed later on in the story, although this instance still stands out as unusual when compared to the other times in the story when he is rendered unconscious. In Chapter 10, for example, he wakes up from Mars knocking him out in a much quicker amount of time.
  • Amoridere acknowledged this in the tags and notes for one of Kill la Kill AU fanfics, with Ryuuko's fever being about 112 degrees and the fact that she was running said fever for more than 48 hours. As she's stated in the note, she figured Ryuuko would have died from said fever, along with noting that she did research but didn't get clear answers. In-story, it was pointed out that Ryuuko's body was starting to shut down, as a result. However, she probably wouldn't have been able to recover from that so quickly.
  • The blood transfusion in Chapter 10 of Dumbledore's Army and the Year of Darkness, done without any attempt at cross-matching bloodtypes, and with two people donating blood, was quite risky, with about a 35% chance Colin would die from bloodtype incompatibility note .

  • Terminator Salvation includes a character getting impaled through the chest, which requires a heart transplant to fix. This is a huge medical mistake because there is no trauma that would require this. If the heart is not punctured, he does not require a new heart. If the heart is punctured, he would be instantly dead. It's one or the other, and there is nothing in betweennote . The fact that there is no mention of infection, compatibility, rejection, or just the fact that it's a hard to accomplish procedure even in a non-collapsed society with functioning hospitals, makes it even worse.
    • This is mostly due to Executive Meddling. In the original ending John Connor dies and Marcus Wright takes his face and identity to continue his legacy. Something at least marginally plausible given known terminator technology.
  • In Oblivion, Julia is shot in the abdomen; it's very hard not to hit part of the digestive system there, and a wound like that is usually fatal even with modern medicine. Also, it's a long time (in emergency medicine time) between her getting shot and another person delivering medical attention. And of course, in the end, all Jack has to do is get the bullet out. However the medical technology of the time is so amazing that Julia later is more than willing to have sex and get pregnant that night.
    • Although he did appear to be using some kind of weird futuristic healing gadget, and goodness knows the technology that enables the whole plot is pure Applied Phlebotinum in the first place, so who knows?
  • In Before The Devil Knows Youre Dead, when Andy is on a hospital bed, the leads to the EKG unit are completely misplaced. They're not a bit off - they look like they were slapped on by someone just trying to make things look medic-... Oh, yeah.
    • When they are moved to another person, they are similarly slapped on incorrectly. This kind of thing normally triggers an alarm if the machine thinks the leads are misplaced or the rhythm detected by the machine is way off. Nothing sensible would come out from simply putting the leads in the wrong places, likely triggering an alarm, though hospital staff don't always react to an alarm with the urgency you'd hope.
  • Seven Pounds has Will Smith's character die by box jellyfish so he can donate his organs to people he thinks deserve them. Box jellyfish venom would have made his organs unusable, since it damages cell membranes.
  • In Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, a doctor explains that a character has gone blind because "both optic nerves have separated from their respective corneas". The optic nerve and the cornea are literally as far apart as two parts of the eye can possibly be.
  • In There's Something About Mary, Ted's chiropractor says that Ted has "tender fascial tissue left of L7". There are only 5 lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5), not 7.
  • Awake. Oh boy, Awake. Along with making the same mistake as the above-mentioned Seven Pounds (only with medication instead of jellyfish venom), there are a few. For instance, how the anesthesiologist is allowed to just step out of the operating theater to make a phone call, when it's his job to stay there to make sure the patient isn't starting to wake up before the surgery is complete. Or how the donated heart for the surgery shows up AFTER they have already opened up the patient. Although, according to Film Brain at least, this helps makes the movie a so-bad-it's-good experience for both non-experts and medical professionals alike.
  • Darkman:
    • The spinothalamic tract is stated to transmit pain and vibration. It actually transmits pain and temperature.
    • The synthetic skin cells are stated to have a membrane potential of 122 megavolts. Human cell membrane potential is measured in millivolts, making this off by a factor of a billion.

  • Penryn and the End of Days:
    • Apparently only one human who can't even suture straight developed and performed the operations done on the low demons. Later it's revealed he can reattach wings, despite there being no mention of his education on angel biology/anatomy.
    • Laylah heads everything vaguely science-related that the angels do, wandering between such specialties as medicine, biological engineering, and pathology.

    Live Action TV 
  • Real-life surgeons are very reluctant to cut half a person's brain out. TV surgeons, on both House and Grey's Anatomy, are more relaxed about performing hemispherectomies.
  • House often features chemotherapeutic drugs as a single "chemo" chemical that you just give a patient to kill any cancer that might be anywhere in the body. In reality, chemo can use alkylating agents, antimetabolites, anthracyclines, plant alkaloids, topoisomerase inhibitors, or any number of other chemicals, and it all depends on the specific type of tumor.
    • Interestingly enough, there's often multiple treatments for the same type of tumor, depending on allergic reactions and bodily tolerance. (read: some are more toxic than others, and God help you if you turn out to be allergic.)
    • In one episode of House, we see a patient ripping out his cochlear implant — cue spurting blood and frantic attempts to save his life. In real life, the external parts of the device (the microphone and speech processor) are held on magnetically, with the actual implant itself safely under the skin. Deaf people and hearing itinerants remove them all the time. It's the equivalent of someone tearing their eyes out by removing their glasses. note 
    • The series has repeatedly shown the OR with dark, dramatic lighting. While there are some cases note  where this would happen, the truth is that OR rooms are brightly lit in the majority of cases.
    • The series has confused CT and MRI machines on more than one occasion, and they show x-rays on film being hung on lightboxes, even though the majority of hospitals have switched to digital x-rays. They've also shown the doctors taking CT scans, drawing blood, and doing the lab work themselves. In reality, these jobs would be done by technologists and technicians, as doctors simply don't have the time or knowledge of how to use the equipment.
    • The series usually offers up a real howler at least once per episode, of the kind you don't even need medical education to notice. Toxoplasmosis? A fungus (in reality, a disease caused by parasitic protozoa). ALS? Affects sensory neurons (there's a reason it's also known as "motor neurone disease"). Unnoticed tumors 30 centimeters in diameter (larger than a basketball). Etc.
    • In one episode, House claims that epilepsy is curable. It is not (it cannot be cured because its causes are not fully understood), but it is treatable (there are several generations of various drugs that, taken constantly, prevent the epileptic fits from occurring). While an ordinary viewer might not know the difference, any MD student, not to mention doctor should know this.
  • Grey's Anatomy. In the second part of the bomb episodes in season two, all Addison Montgomery can do for Miranda Bailey—who is extremely distraught about her husband being in surgery next to the might-explode-at-any-second bomb—is tell her the baby could die if she doesn't push. Offering support and encouragement and taking charge is apparently something only interns do. And in the season three premiere, with the preemie who was left in a trash can at a high school, and the four girls who could have been the mother? All they had to do was give them a regular pee on a stick pregnancy test. The pregnancy hormone, hCG, stays in the blood for up to six weeks after birth.
  • The Legend Of William Tell; Will goes hypothermic after wandering around a mountain for a while. Well, sort of. (He can speak, walk with help, and is more or less fine after one night under a cloak.)
  • On Stargate Universe, one character donates a kidney to another. The location of the scar on the donor's belly suggests that they accidentally transplanted his spleen instead, as a donated kidney is best extracted from the lower back, not the front.
  • Stargate SG-1 had a minor case with pathology in "The Broca Divide", the episode where SG-1 and -3 accidentally bring back a disease that causes humans to regress to a primitive mental state. Leaving aside whether it's physically possible for a disease to do this, the goof came when Dr. Fraiser referred to the organism causing the disease as a virus that feeds on histamine. This allowed them to cure it with massive doses of allergy meds, starving the disease. Viruses do not feed on anything: they use cells to replicate, plain and simple, so antihistamines would have had absolutely no effect had it actually been a virus. She also refers to it as a "parasitic virus". Viruses are parasitic by definition.
  • An episode of Herman's Head played into the myth that sugar is 100% fatal to diabetics. Part of the story involved Herman giving a bear a donut and then finding out later that the bear was diabetic and died a short time later.
  • A few examples from Columbo
    • In one episode, the hospital requests that the patient's assistant go to his hotel room to retrieve his usual medications. In reality no hospital would do this as it would be a monumental waste of time- they'd either likely have the drugs on hand or would be able to get them from a nearby pharmacy.
    • While blowfish poison can be quite fatal, one episode well for the usual trick of the poison killing its victim within 1 minute of ingestion. It's not quite that effective.
  • In an in-Verse example, Dean on Supernatural once explained away his having fired a gun in his girlfriend's garage by claiming he'd seen a possum and knew they carried rabies. Due to their low body temperature, opossums are the least likely backyard North American mammals to harbor the rabies virus, something any doctor who knows about rabies or exterminator who knows possums would be aware of.

    Video Games 
  • In Batman: Arkham City, IV blood lines are shown with white gaps (presumably air) between red pockets of blood. This is very bad: air in a blood vessel can cause a potentially fatal embolism.
  • In Surgeon Simulator 2013, some minor liberties have been taken regarding human physiology, such as being able to survive without otherwise vital organs. Like a brain.
    • Also alluded to with some achievements: for example, "I'm sure he'll live" requires finishing surgery when the patient has a very small amount of blood left.
    • An average human male can lose up to 40% of his blood before his body can no longer keep up with the loss and he's on his way to a better world (unless some immediate medical help is applied), and even at this point his body becomes rather pale (which isn't shown in the actual game). This means that once your patient's blood level goes below 3360ml, "I'm sure he'll live" becomes a rather Blatant Lie. Not that it's saying much, considering Nigel's methods of performing the surgeries...
  • Played for Laughs in Thy Dungeonman 2. Percy the rat infects Thy Dungeonman with bubonic plague, and it's not portrayed particularly realistically. Thy Dungeonman doesn't get any symptoms before he suffers Critical Existence Failure 27 turns after infection. But don't worry; you can stave it off by eating moldy bread and cure it by getting it "sawed off".

Alternative Title(s):

Artistic Licence Medicine, You Fail Your Medical Boards Forever, You Fail Medicine Forever