For many people, prime-time medical dramas such as "Grey's Anatomy" and "House" can't be beat for heart-stopping thrills and compelling story lines.
But while most regard these programs as pure entertainment, new research suggests that the shows may also be an important source of health information for their audiences.
That is what is suggested by the findings of a study, released Tuesday, that assesses the impact of health messages embedded within an episode of "Grey's Anatomy."
Lead researcher Victoria Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of the Program for the Study of Media and Health, says the new study shows more clearly than ever how health messages embedded in TV programs can affect audience awareness of medical issues.
"It's very hard, actually, to come up with hard documentation about the impact of an entertainment show on the awareness of health issues," Rideout told ABCNews.com. "This is one of the very few large-scale national response experiments [on health messages in entertainment]."
To measure the impact of health messages in medical dramas, researchers worked with the writers of "Grey's Anatomy" to embed a health message in an episode of the popular program. In this case, the storyline involved a pregnant woman who was HIV positive, and the message was that she had a 98 percent chance of having a healthy baby with the proper treatment.
Viewers of the episode completed a survey before and after the episode aired. What the researchers found was that while only 15 percent of viewers knew before the show that mother-to-child transmission of HIV was overwhelmingly preventable, 61 percent were familiar with this fact after viewing the episode.
A followup survey found that nearly half of viewers -- 45 percent -- retained this information six weeks later.
"I knew that people learn from television, even entertainment television, but I was absolutely astounded at the level of learning happening here," Rideout said.
"Given how many people are multitasking when they are watching TV ... the fact that nearly half of the audience picked up on the factual information in the show and remembered it later was actually astounding."
Jay Bernhardt, director of the National Center for Health Marketing at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at a press conference Tuesday that the study suggests entertainment TV may be a largely unexploited tool when it comes to reaching the masses with important health information.
"The data suggest that the public still turns to television for a great deal of health information, not only [from] the news media, not only PSAs ... but also entertainment programming is an important source of health information," Bernhardt said. "It is critical for us, as the nation's public health agency, to have accurate, timely, relevant health information through that channel that people can use to protect and promote their health... That means using every single medium at our disposal to do so."
The new research was not the first to suggest that medical shows can have a profound effect on viewers' ideas about health.