Increasing Health Literacy and Awareness on TV
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.