Aug. 8, 2017

TV lessons for grown-ups

The Werklund School’s Kaela Jubas explores how pop culture teaches Canadians about healthcare and work

Outside the classroom, people engage in learning every day by interacting with popular culture. Despite the tendency to think about pop culture as mindless escape, it can foster understanding and knowledge about important issues. That is the central premise taken up by Dr. Kaela Jubas in her research conducted between 2009 and 2015. In two connected studies, Dr. Jubas investigated how Canadian fans responded to the popular TV shows Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy.

Work and learning

In the first study, Dr. Jubas analyzed the shows to find segments related to three themes: identity, ethics, and work-related teaching and learning. She then interviewed 41 undergraduate nursing and medical students who watched one or both of the programs.

Participants agreed that the shows could be either melodramatic (in the case of Grey’s Anatomy) or ludicrous (in the case of Scrubs). Although they watched the shows predominantly for enjoyment, participants saw things in the shows that resonated with their educational experiences and knowledge.

Sometimes, what the viewers saw helped them make important realizations and decisions. Some viewed the shows’ portrayals of challenging, delicate surgical procedures as intellectually stimulating, and were eager to get into the operating room themselves. Others saw surgery’s long hours and competitive reputation as a reason to choose another specialization. Feeling anxious about meeting the demands of medical school, one participant recalled watching the characters on Scrubs face challenges that he was anticipating and feeling comforted by their successes. The shows’ characters became teachers, role models, even friends of sorts.

As participants progressed through their educational programs, some began to use the shows to test their developing knowledge. They noticed that they could identify errors or recognize good practices that would have escaped their attention earlier. The shows helped them confirm what they knew and encouraged them to learn more about rare conditions that they saw portrayed.

The 20 nursing students provided distinctive insights into how they saw through the near-invisibility of nurses, especially in Grey’s Anatomy. They recognized that, even though the show pictured surgical residents and attending surgeons doing most of the bedside work with patients, what they were seeing was really their work.

Divisions between nursing and medicine, while overblown in the shows, were still felt by participants in their classroom and clinical education. The idea of nursing as “women’s work,” the hierarchy of doctors over nurses, and the instances of disrespect towards nurses in the shows might not be as prevalent in real-life, but are not entirely things of the past.

Cultural portrayals of/and healthcare policy

The second study grew out of the first one, as Dr. Jubas heard some participants explain that, although they recognized points in the shows that did not correspond with their experiences, they could not always tell if inaccuracies related to the fact that they were watching fiction or the fact that they were watching U.S. fiction.

In this second study, which involved 55 Canadians aged 18 to 30 who watched Grey’s Anatomy, the focus shifted to how pop culture crosses borders to inform understandings of and debates about healthcare policyCentral themes in this study were who is seen as deserving of care, which services are covered (and how relevant decisions are made), and how healthcare is organized.

The frequent appearance of patients in Grey’s Anatomy who could not afford medical insurance reminded participants that, in Canada, they could seek basic medical care knowing that they were covered by their provincial Medicare program. They agreed that the cost of medical insurance remained a major problem for many people in the US, and that this marked a major and important difference between Canada and the US. The show even helped inform some about the “Obamacare” debate, which was playing out during this study.

Culture as teacher

Far from being just simple fun, pop culture can play a significant role in learning outside the classroom. What matters is not whether shows are entirely realistic – indeed, as fiction they never will be. What matters is that they resonate with their audiences. If a story hits home, it will find an audience who will learn from it.

By portraying events and experiences large and small, pop culture connects audiences to critical discussions and ideas. As Dr. Jubas’ research illustrates, the shows Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy highlight healthcare work and workers, and draw attention to current issues in medicine, politics, and society.

*This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)*