New research from Canada shows that almost half of the time, doctors and nurses on popular TV medical dramas respond inappropriately to seizures, suggesting that watching TV is not the best way to learn what to do if you are present when someone has a seizure.

Details of the study were released in a press statement today: the findings are to be presented between 10th and 17th April at the American Academy of Neurology’s 62nd Annual Meeting in Toronto.

Study author Andrew Moeller, a third year medical student at Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia, said in a statement that TV drama is a powerful medium for educating the public about how to deal with first aid and seizures, but he and colleague Dr R. Mark Sadler, also with Dalhousie, found that half of the time the public is being misinformed.

For the study, Moeller and Sadler screened all episodes of the higher-rated US medical dramas, namely:

  • Grey’s Anatomy,
  • House, MD,
  • Private Practice, and
  • the last 5 seasons of ER.

They found 59 seizures depicted in a total of 327 episodes. 51 of the seizures took place in a hospital, and nearly all the first aid was administered by “nurses” and “doctors”.

The researchers compared what happened on screen with guidelines on seizure management to establish whether each seizure was handled correctly.

They counted 25 cases, nearly 46 per cent of the time, of seizure handled incorrectly by either holding the person down, trying to stop the involuntary movements, or putting things in the person’s mouth: all these measures are wrong ways to manage seizures.

They found 17 cases, or 29 per cent of the time, of seizures handled correctly, and 15 (25 per cent) cases where they couldn’t establish whether the first aid given was appropriate or not.

Guidelines on seizure management were used to determine whether the seizure was handled properly.

In a statement, Moeller described their findings as a “call to action” and urged people with epilepsy to:

“Lobby the television industry to adhere to guidelines for first aid management of seizures.”

The following advice on how to manage seizures, and how not to manage them, comes from the US National Institutes of Health MedlinePlus. Remember, the priority is to protect the person from injury.

CORRECT way to manage a seizure, ie DO:

  1. Try to prevent a fall, lay the person on the ground in a safe area, and clear the area of furniture and sharp objects so they don’t injure themselves.
  2. Cushion the person’s head and loosen any tight clothing, especially around their neck.
  3. Turn them on their side, and if they vomit, make sure it does not block their airway and is not inhaled into their lungs.
  4. Look for a medical ID bracelet with seizure instructions.
  5. Stay with them until they recover, or until professional medical help arrives.
  6. In the meantime, keep monitoring their vital signs: pulse and breathing.

There is also a WRONG way to manage a seizure, thus it is important that you:

  1. DO NOT restrain the person.
  2. DO NOT place anything between their teeth during the seizure (including your fingers).
  3. DO NOT move them unless they are in danger or near something hazardous.
  4. DO NOT try to stop them convulsing (they will not be aware of what is happening during the seizure).
  5. DO NOT give them anything by mouth until the convulsions have stopped and they are fully awake and alert.

Sources: American Academy of Neurology, NIH Medline Plus.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD