In the season 8 finale of Scrubs, a popular medical TV show, one of the doctors diagnoses a 70-year-old woman with Huntington’s disease. While manifestation of the disease is more common during middle age, presenting symptoms later on is possible. JD, the physician on the show, does his best to explain the disease in a manageable, understandable way without neglecting to mention that the patient’s son, Mr. Stonewater, is also at risk for this genetic disease. JD offers Mr. Stonewater the genetic test that would reveal whether or not he had inherited the same faulty gene as his mother. Mr. Stonewater asks for some time to consider his options.
JD goes through the rest of his day fazed, as he knows how devastating the disease is and how difficult a decision it is whether or not to pursue genetic testing. When Mr. Stonewater informs JD that he does not want to take the test, JD respects his wishes.
The son, Mr. Stonewater, had told JD that his mom wasn’t acting like herself. When JD tries to examine her she lashes out and accuses him of trying to attack her. JD comes back later with a diagnosis.
Stonewater: She has Huntington’s disease?
Stonewater: So what do we do?
JD: Unfortunately, there’s no cure. Eventually it will take her.
Stonewater: Oh geez.
JD’s internal monologue: Sometimes, you just have to barrel through no matter how much it sucks.
JD: And Mr. Stonewater, Huntington’s is caused by a faulty gene. And since your mother has it, you have a 50/50 chance of having it too. We can test you for it if you want.
Stonewater: If we find out that I have it early on, are there any treatment options?
JD: Nothing substantial yet. I can only tell you if you have it, can’t even tell you when the disease would hit you if you do have it. Could be in your 70’s like your mom or…
Stonewater: Could be sooner.
JD: Could be sooner. I’m so sorry.
Stonewater: Can I have a few minutes?
JD internal monologue: I’m so bummed about Mrs. Stonewater that I totally spaced and forgot what was wrong with Benjamin here. Is he the one with broken ribs? Nope. Maybe he’s the guy with sinus polyps. I don’t think there’s any polyps but he definitely has some oily skin issues. I should turn him on to that awesome apricot scrub I stole from Elliott. Come on, focus!
In an argument with Elliott, a fellow hospital employee and JD’s girlfriend
Later, JD encounters the patient in the hallway as he explores the challenges of offering the genetic test for Mr. Stonewater.
JD’s internal monologue: Sometimes it’s deciding that you don’t want to know if you have a fatal disease.
Stonewater: Dr. Dorian, I decided not to take that test.
(JD walks away from the patient in a haze of his own internal monologue)
In this case, it is unusual for a doctor to recommend the genetic test without explaining the formalities that accompany it—genetic counseling, psychiatric and neurological evaluations as well as a blood draw. These aspects of genetic testing, along with the risks—discrimination, insurance spikes, depression, etc.—were probably not included in this episode due to the nature of the show (entertainment versus documentary). We would like to clarify that doctors should always explain the full process of genetic testing before offering it, especially if someone has only been recently introduced to the disease. Other than the exemption of these facts, JD does not misinform Mr. Stonewater about his genetic risk or the fate of his mother and explains the facts clearly and succinctly.
However, as you can see from JD’s internal monologue, genetic testing can be a complicated decision even for the medical professionals. Genetic counselors, neurologists, and psychiatrists all work together to determine a patient’s ability to handle an HD genetic testing. They must consider the ramifications of the test and the results potential impact on the health of the patient, which might include risk of suicide or depression. These professionals often face great stress upon the reveal of the results, as they are all too aware of the implications of the test. We can see the type of strain this places on JD as he emphasizes with Mr. Stonewater’s tough predicament.
Within the context of a medical drama TV series, this episode overall accurately portrays the difficulties for the patient, the family, and the physician involved in dealing with the realities involved in dealing with the delivery of an HD diagnosis.