Season 16 of Grey’s Anatomy tackles the social determinants of health

Nov 22, 2020 | In Medicine, In Writing

A friend recently drew my attention to the fact that Season 16 of Grey’s Anatomy seemed different. I have to admit, I didn’t realize Grey’s Anatomy was still on air. Is that bad?

The difference this season is that Meredith Grey, the main character, is stirring things up. She falsified insurance documents so that one of her patients could receive the medical treatment that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. She was fired from her job and her medical license went under review. During her work in community service, she realizes that the current health care system leaves many people behind. She is becoming more aware of the social determinants of health.

The social determinants of health are those things that determine one’s health from a social point of view. Those who are poor or racialized, for example, often have worse health outcomes than those who are not. I’m currently working in Yellowknife where I am seeing this first-hand. Canada’s history of racism against Indigenous peoples has resulted in social, economic and cultural marginalization. This has a direct impact on their health.

Grey’s Anatomy is scratching the surface of this issue. And they don’t go far enough. Much can be said from the language they use. I notice Meredith uses the phrase ‘institutional discrimination’ rather than systemic racism, which is more accurate.

The irony in Grey’s Anatomy is that Meredith Grey is fired from her job for caring about her patients. As healthcare professionals, we can feel silenced in our desires to conduct advocacy work. We may feel pressure from the institutions that we work for or our professional or governing associations. We may fear losing our jobs and our security, or even damaging our reputations. But the work of advocacy is so important. It is this work that can make an even greater difference than prescribing a medication.

Overall, I’m impressed with Grey’s Anatomy for at least starting the conversation.

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