Grey’s Anatomy as Health Promotion. Really?

I’m often bullied into watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (honest – it was just on!) and occasionally I understand what McDreamy might be saying about hemispherectomies and neural-pathways; but I didn’t realise that Grey’s is raising awareness of health issues throughout the globe.  Well done Dr. Grey and cast.

According to a recent article on the CBS News site a Grey’s Anatomy episode with embedded messages about HIV awareness shifted viewers attitudes about HIV especially attitudes surrounding mothers with HIV and the chances of their baby contracting the disease.

“Health educators slipped a message about HIV-positive mothers into a story line in the popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Then they tested whether viewers got that message.”

Three surveys were conducted: one before the episode aired, one shortly after and a follow-up 6 weeks after.  One of the questions asked in the survey was in relation to the probability of contracting HIV from a mother who had the disease.

“As far as you know, if a woman who is HIV positive becomes pregnant and receives the proper treatment, what is the chance that she will give birth to a healthy baby, not infected with HIV?”

Before the show aired only 15% of people questioned got the correct answer (more than a 90% chance), soon after the show this went up dramatically to 61% and at the six-week follow-up 45% got the question correct.

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The author of the research, Victoria Rideout, suggests that while watching television we absorb information.

“For better or worse, viewers do absorb the health information they see on TV, so it’s important for these shows to get it right … This study shows the enormous potential for entertainment television to serve as a health educator.”

This obviously raises many questions as far as health promotion goes.  Firstly, that the medium of television, and more importantly entertainment programmes can be very powerful in getting positive messages and health awareness out to the viewers.

However, this power has to be used carfully – if viewers believe that the information they are ‘absorbing’ from medical entertainment programmes are accurate (as almost 60% of viewers do) we need to ensure that there’s no false or misleading information in these programmes.  A real double-edged sword.

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