How to Play an ER Doctor Onscreen

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The emergency room doctor is a frequently featured role. Turn on your TV or stream a drama and chances are you will see some scrubs-ensconced actor treading the boards (in all-day comfort shoes, of course).

So how do you channel your inner Dr. Turk (Donald Faison, “Scrubs”) or Dr. Chen (Ming-Na, “ER,”)? We got a checkup from Matthew Kaufman, M.D., an emergency medicine specialist working in the New York City area. Here’s his Rx for crafting the perfect ER doc character.

Dress the part

Scrubs are key here. “People always think of the white coat for ER doctors, but I haven’t worn one in decades.” Instead, he sticks to scrubs and footwear that are comfortable over long shifts. Think: Dansko clogs, Crocs, or Hoka running shoes.

Deep-six the stethoscope

As counterintuitive as it sounds, ER doctors don’t wear stethoscopes anymore. “No doctor that I know even carries one,” Kaufman says. “Whatever we would be looking for, we’d order a chest X-ray.” The single most indispensable prop, he says, is a hospital ID on a retractable tether clipped to his pocket: “You can’t get anywhere in a hospital without it. You’re swiping for access everywhere.” Even though physical clipboard-based medical charts have gone the way of the dinosaur (or stethoscope!) and been supplanted by computers, Kaufman still always carries a pen, too. 

Dive into the dynamics

To play an ER doctor convincingly, you need to understand the nuances of the dynamic between doctor and patient as well as between doctor and colleagues. “In the ER, we’re taught to connect with people and be nice—and we do—but you also want to have a plan in place within a couple of minutes,” Kaufman says. If a patient is telling a shaggy-dog story about something unrelated to the injury that brought them there, “You kind of have to become abrupt. Like, ‘OK, so we’ll get those tests going!’” 

As for interactions with EMTs, he points out that a lot of times, ER doctors think the EMTs do too much in the ambulance, so your character might approach them with wariness. When talking with other ER staffers, the mood tends to be one of camaraderie and exasperation. “The most central struggle of the ER is that you want to admit a patient, but the specialist who works in a different department won’t take them on. The ER doctors complain to each other about that a lot.”

Deliver that ER energy

Emergency room shifts can last for 12 hours, so Kaufman recommends budgeting your energy and hyping yourself up. “It’s just long hours of zooming around, multitasking, checking back in on people,” he says. “If you’ve tended bar or waited tables during a really busy dinner service, then you know exactly how to play the vibe.”