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.

"I am reasonably convinced that this effect happened," says Dr. Tim Byers, vice chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. "Celebrity events such as this have had similar effects in the past. Following the Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller breast cancer diagnoses, for example, there were documented surges in mammography and breast cancer diagnosis rates in the U.S."

Other health advocates concur. "In the past, certainly when Betty Ford got breast cancer, there was a spike in women getting mammograms," says Raphael.

"As long as you have the right celebrity for the right cause, it can make a difference," she adds, citing Dallas star Hagman's past chairmanship of the Great American Smoke-Out. "The key is that the person has to have a connection to the cancer."

Phone Lines, Web Sites Swamped

In another example, when CBS used the sitcom Murphy Brown to deal with breast cancer, one organization, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness of the disease.

During one episode, the show's star, Candice Bergen, did a live public service announcement with the founder of the Komen Foundation. That prompted more than 1,100 women to call the foundation's help line that evening to ask about breast-cancer screening, says foundation spokeswoman Kristin Kelly. Call volume before the episode was about 75 to 100 calls per day.

And when actress Terri Garr announced her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 2002, the Web site for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society was flooded with hits. Celebrity spokesmanship, says spokesman Arney Rosenblat, "puts a face on the disease [and promote the idea] anyone is vulnerable."

Even when the evidence on celebrity involvement is anecdotal, the influence seems apparent. "Famous people have a big impact on cancer awareness," argues Blum. "[They are] able to generate both awareness and actual action."