Convincing Hollywood dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House” fuel falsehoods and myths about organ donation so much so that some viewers are scared away from giving the gift of life, even as nearly 100,000 would-be transplant patients languish, according to a new study.
Viewers of soap operas and medical dramas can be so convinced that organ donation is tainted by black markets and favoritism inside hospitals that they won’t donate, said Susan Morgan, associate professor of health communication at Purdue University and author of a study published in this month’s journal of Health Communication.
“We know the misconceptions are a huge problem,” she said. “There’s real issues with people’s attitudes towards becoming an organ donor. Intellectually, people know it’s a good idea, but there’s a large number of people reluctant to do it. They have no other source of information other than the media.”
That really bothers Sheila Tines of Lowell, 39, who has been waiting for a double-lung transplant for four years. She got so tired of watching TV shows twist truth that she now speaks publicly on behalf of the New England Organ Bank.
“It is a big part of why some people choose not to be a donor. There are so many myths out there. Some people truly believe everything they see on TV. It’s not always accurate,” said Tines, who has bronchiectasis and must use an oxygen tank at all times.
According to Morgan’s study, in 2004 and 2005, organ donation was a storyline in 80 TV episodes, and each one perpetuated some myth. Morgan surveyed nearly 4,500 viewers of “House,” “ER,” “CSI” and “Numbers” who answered online questionnaires about how six chosen episodes involving donation affected their views.
She said nearly all of the viewers of a “Numbers” episode that featured a black market plot line believed that underground organ sales existed in this country. Morgan says they don’t. Other viewers, who watched episodes that implied a “hospital committee” determined who received organs, believed that to be true. That’s also a myth, Morgan said.
Publicists for ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and FOX hit “House,” shows that Morgan says are some of the worst offenders, didn’t return calls or e-mails for comment.
Organ donation officials are concerned that, with large waiting lists for donated organs, the TV storylines could be deterring people who might otherwise consider donating.
Pam Albert, director of donor family services at the New England Organ Bank, said she sometimes has to assure families of a loved one who has died that their organs won’t be sold to the highest bidder or given to a well-connected hospital executive.
The average wait for a kidney transplant in the Boston area is five years. And each day, 17 Americans die while waiting for an organ.
Experts interviewed for this story said while Morgan’s study doesn’t provide sound proof, they have no doubt that TV shows have the power to convince people that organ donation can’t be trusted.
“None of those stories are true, but it shapes your opinion and it puts organ donation in this gray area,” said Dr. Stefan Tullius, chief of transplant surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It turns people away from organ donation.”