Mad scientists, compassionate healers, and greedy egotists: The portrayal of physicians in the movies

Glenn Flores

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

30 Scopus citations

Abstract

Cinematic depictions of physicians potentially can affect public expectations and the patient-physician relationship, but little attention has been devoted to portrayals of physicians in movies. The objective of the study was the analysis of cinematic depictions of physicians to determine common demographic attributes of movie physicians, major themes, and whether portrayals have changed over time. All movies released on videotape with physicians as main characters and readily-available to the public were viewed in their entirety. Data were collected on physician characteristics, diagnoses, and medical accuracy, and dialogue concerning physicians was transcribed. The results showed that in the 131 films, movie physicians were significantly more likely to be male (p < 0.00001), White (p < 0.00001), and < 40 years of age (p < 0.009). The proportion of women and minority film physicians has declined steadily in recent decades. Movie physicians are most commonly surgeons (33%), psychiatrists (26%), and family practitioners (18%). Physicians were portrayed negatively in 44% of movies, and since the 1960s positive portrayals declined while negative portrayals increased. Physicians frequently are depicted as greedy, egotistical, uncaring, and unethical, especially in recent films. Medical inaccuracies occurred in 27% of films. Compassion and idealism were common in early physician movies but are increasingly scarce in recent decades. A recurrent theme is the "mad scientist," the physician-researcher that values research more than patients' welfare. Portrayals of physicians as egotistical and materialistic have increased, whereas sexism and racism have waned. Movies from the past two decades have explored critical issues surrounding medical ethics and managed care. We conclude that negative cinematic portrayals of physicians are on the rise, which may adversely affect patient expectations and the patient-physician relationship. Nevertheless, films about physicians can serve as useful gauges of public opinion about the medical profession, as tools for medical education, and as instruments of positive social change in efforts to reform managed care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)635-658
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of the National Medical Association
Volume94
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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