Television Shows Can Help Public Learn about Health Care
Movies and television shows that depict mental illness can help the public learn that condition is treatable, Surgeon General David Satcher said during a symposium sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council. The symposium, held yesterday, featured clips from the televisions shows "ER," "The West Wing," "Judging Amy," "Seventh Heaven" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Satcher said that producers of such shows have "a greater ability to disseminate information and attitudes than we (health workers) do alone." Actress Sally Field, who recently portrayed a character with manic depression on "ER", former "ER" Executive Producer Neal Baer and Dr. Kay Jamison, psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine also participated in the symposium. Baer said that Field's "ER" role allowed viewers to learn about bipolar disorder. However, Satcher noted that the media has "largely ignored" teen suicide. He said, "Suicide is very much a silent public health issue." But Baer said, "We don't want to put on a story to romanticize suicide. There are many reports of people being susceptible to what they have seen on TV" (Harrigan, AP/Contra Costa Times, 1/11).
Television viewers "are interested in health-related story lines, and some learn about health topics and have been motivated to seek additional health information," a Kaiser Family Foundation study in the latest Health Affairs found. The study surveyed more than 3,500 viewers of "ER" between March 1997 and April 2000 to determine what health information viewers learned and retained, as well as viewer's interest in health-related story lines. Researchers singled out two episodes, one that featured a three-minute vignette on emergency contraception, which aired in 1997, and one "short vignette" on human papillomavirus that aired in 2000. In both instances, viewers' awareness of the topics increased after viewing the episodes, but that knowledge was not retained over time. In a second part of the study, researchers compared respondents' interest in health-related story lines to their interest in other story lines, such as those about characters' relationships, and found slightly more viewers said they were "very interested" in health-related plots. For example during the 1997-1998 season, slightly more viewers were "very interested" in a story about Jeanie Boulet, a physician assistant infected with HIV, than were "very interested" in a relationship between Dr. Doug Ross and nurse Carol Hathaway. Overall, the study notes that 54% of regular viewers indicated that they "were happy" with the amount of health-related story lines, and 40% said they would like to see "even more health issues addressed." Fifty-one percent of viewers said that they had discussed with family members and friends health issues addressed on the show and nearly 34% said that they had received information from the show that helped them make health care decisions. Twenty-three percent of viewers said that they had consulted additional sources to find more information about a specific issue that the show addressed. From these results, the study surmises, "Dramatically depicting health-related issues through entertainment television may be a mechanism to inform the public about health topics." However, the study recommends "try[ing] to make the content as accurate as possible and ... tak[ing] advantage of opportunities to convey public health messages that can improve health and sometimes save lives" (Brodie et al, "Communicating Health Information through the Entertainment Media," Health Affairs, January/February 2001 issue). The full text of this study is available on the Health Affairs Web site,
http://www.healthaffairs.org in both Real Page and PDF formats.