'Grey's Anatomy' Lesson? TV Ups Awareness

Sandra de Castro Buffington, director of Hollywood, Health and Society for the University of Southern California's Annenberg Norman Lear Center, noted during the conference that a 2000 survey showed that "More than half -- 52 percent of regular viewers -- report that they trust the health information in these shows to be accurate.

"One-quarter -- 26 percent -- say primetime entertainment shows are among their top three sources for health information," she added.

The Scalpel Cuts Both Ways

But with many medical shows focusing on rare, medical mysteries, can audiences also get the wrong idea from medical shows?

"I think it's very likely," Rideout said, citing other studies that she and her colleagues have performed. "We did research that showed that six in 10 shows do have health information in them. By far, the biggest category is rare and mysterious diseases."

Taking such messages to heart could possibly be terrifying for some, who might subsequently believe that their common symptoms are a sign of a rare, difficult-to-treat affliction.

"The point is, there is a lot of health information out there, and people are learning from the health information that's out there -- for better or for worse," Rideout said. "We need to be paying attention to what health information is in these entertainment shows."

But Dr. George Pratt, vice chairman of psychology at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., said even when the shows dramatize medical conditions, the net result can be a good one.

"Even if we're talking about the flipside, I think that it can even be a positive, because it gets people talking and thinking," Pratt said. "It contributes to an elevated interest and motivation to be responsible and vigilant with regard to your own health.

"Let's say something is hyped. This does still have a positive effect of having people take steps toward a greater degree of awareness."

Exploiting a Widespread Health Tool

"That's a really unusual way for medical storylines to be developed on our show," said Elizabeth Klaviter, director of medical research for the popular medical shows "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," both of which are broadcast by ABC.

But Klaviter said that constant consultation with medical experts ensures that such messages get out on a regular basis.

And such medical messages may have the welcome side effect of increasing the health knowledge of viewers.

"Health literacy is incredibly important," Rideout said. "We need to do more to educate the public about how they should educate themselves -- how to judge and assess the quality of the health information they get through entertainment. I think this is something that the CDC is very interested in moving forward on."

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