Study Shows Celebs Have Medical Muscle

ByABC News
July 14, 2003, 1:26 PM

July 15 -- 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.