Study Shows Celebs Have Medical Muscle

When it comes to getting the word out about a disease, there's apparently nothing like a celebrity endorsement.

Disease awareness associations ranging from the American Cancer Society to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society have long believed celebrity voices could help captivate audiences.

Tests for hepatitis C increased, for instance, after former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson went public with her own diagnosis. Magic Johnson became one of the first celebrities to publicize his battle with HIV.

To date, there has been only anecdotal evidence of the effect of star power. But now health advocates have data to back up their belief.

In a new study, researchers observed a significant jump in colonoscopies performed per month after NBC's morning news anchor Katie Couric's on-screen procedure in March 2000. Doctors surveyed as part of the study reported performing an average of more than 18 colonscopies per month, up from 15, in the nine months following the Couric broadcast. This study was published today in The Archives of Internal Medicine.

"The findings suggest that a celebrity spokesperson, even one that did not have the specific condition, could have a profound effect on the public," reports lead researcher Dr. A. Mark Fendrick, Division of General Medicine at University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor.

When the Stars Speak Out

The use of celebrities to increase disease awareness is widespread in the disease advocacy community.

Cancer Care, for instance, has turned both to supermodel Christy Turlington, whose father died of lung cancer, and Law & Order actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who speaks out about lung cancer in the African-American community.

Former presidential candidate and senator Bob Dole also proved an admirable role model in the fight against prostate cancer after his diagnosis with the disease, says Diane Blum, Cancer Care's executive director.

"It's great when the celebrity can use their power to send a positive message," adds Susan Raphael of the American Cancer Society, which in the past has turned to stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Natalie Cole, and Larry Hagman.

Says Mike Dugan, president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which once boasted former Mickey Mouse Club darling Annette Funicello as its spokeswoman: "Celebrity is the sugar that makes the medicine go down."

Is There a Real Cause and Effect?

But some statisticians question the findings, saying there is no evidence the NBC reports produced a long-lasting effect. The researchers, they note, did not specifically ask study subjects what motivated their colon screening, meaning other factors could have influenced that decision.

"Whether the effect is causal or not is impossible to say from this data — but it probably is," says George Kaplan, director of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health at the University of Michigan.

Fendrick maintains the increase can be attributed to the broadcast with a strong degree of certainty. The research found, for instance, that the number of individuals receiving colonoscopies went up over the nine-month time period, while other cancer preventive measures, including mammography, were either unaffected or decreased.

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