Increasing Health Literacy and Awareness on TV

February 27, 2008 at 9:17 pm 6 comments

If I was a screenwriter and needed an au courant health problem to feature, I know where to turn. The Winter 2008 issue of Real to Reel provides a synopsis from media sources and leading health agencies, including how malaria-infected mosquitoes are being used to develop a new vaccine and how a door-to-door salesman donated a kidney to someone he tried to sell a vacuum cleaner to. It’s easy to imagine the taken-from-real-life dramas that could result and to furthermore see the opportunities to increase health literacy and awareness.

Hollywood, Health & Society (HHS), part of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, helps entertainment writers with medical and health storylines. Their Sentinel for Health Awards “recognize exemplary TV storylines that best inform, educate and motivate viewers to make choices for healthier and safer lives. Past recognition has been given for storylines about breast cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, disability, fetal alcohol syndrome, car crashes, organ donation, and safe sex.” The award was started by the CDC for soap operas and has been expanded to include “daytime drama, primetime drama, primetime minor storyline, primetime comedy and telenovela.”

While I am focused primarily on the use of health web sites and online health communities, I realize the strong influence of print, TV, plays, and movies. I wrote earlier this month about Ellen Goodman’s column about conflicting health messages and the difficulty of knowing what to do – or which study to believe – to stay healthy. The influence of TV, plays, and movies is more powerful since the message is more visual and designed to engage the viewer’s emotions (my heart was pounding the last time I watched Nip/Tuck). According to O Magazine, the CDC reports that 88% of Americans learn about health issues from TV and I imagine that the number is high for movies, plays, novels, and other creative media: virtually all include someone who is ill, dying, or dies during the course of the story.

Where is the line between accuracy and creative license? The CDC and other agencies are at the accuracy end, but efforts like HHS certainly increase the accuracy of the abundant creative outlets. On the one hand, Forbes reports that “a new study by researchers at the University of Southern California, published this month in the Journal of Health Communication,… shows viewers of an ER storyline about teen obesity, hypertension and healthy eating habits were 65% more likely to report a positive change in their behavior after watching.” And on the other hand, WebMD reports that the number of people having cosmetic surgery is increasing and that many people have inaccurate perceptions of the recovery process and the impact of the surgery on their lives due in part to television makeover shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover.

Health web sites and online health communities share many of these problems in terms of their accuracy and potential impact, the primary difference being that they are not designed for entertainment.

Entry filed under: health, online health communities. Tags: , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. The Democratization of Medical Knowledge « Lisa Neal  |  April 16, 2008 at 12:08 am

    […] to digress, but I wrote about health and media recently and was interested that Marcus Welby, MD had an episode that focused on the diagnoses of […]

  • […] with the Stars and the knock-off shows are increasing interest in dance, in much the same way Nick/Tuck increased interest in cosmetic surgery. Of course, just like staring in the mirror at your wrinkles doesn’t mean you will have […]

  • 3. Lisa Neal  |  March 10, 2008 at 4:01 am

    In ( there is a post about how Lifetime Networks is using its celebrity Marcia Cross (of Desperate Housewives) to make people aware of an issue, in this case to end to “drive-through mastectomy”.

    From the post: If Lifetime is truly interested in “using the power of the media to make a positive difference in women’s lives,” as it states on its website, then it should have taken a page from the post-mortem on passing the Newborns’ and Mothers’ Health Protection Act — commonly known as “drive-through deliveries.” In “What Lessons Should We Learn From Drive-Through Deliveries” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, David A. Hyman cautions: “…although sound bites are helpful in making the case for a policy change, they have a distinct tendency to crowd out the issue they were intended to dramatize. Once the problem was framed as ‘drive-through deliveries,’ the real issues at stake never made it onto the policy agenda.”

  • 4. Mike Gualtieri  |  February 29, 2008 at 8:01 am

    Marketing professionals are trying to figure out how social networking can be used to influence buying behaviors. Maybe the same techniques can be used to influence health related behaviors.

  • 5. Pages tagged "cosmetic"  |  February 28, 2008 at 2:48 am

    […] tagged cosmeticOwn a WordPress blog? Make monetization easier with the WP Affiliate Pro plugin. Increasing Health Literacy and Awareness on TV saved by 3 others     silkfarm bookmarked on 02/27/08 | […]

  • […] Abc of Pain Management Blog wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]


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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa:


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