Researchers at the University of Southern California found that the primetime NBC network drama had a positive influence on the attitudes and behaviours of viewers, particularly among men when it dealt with issues like teen obesity, hypertension and healthy eating habits.
Thomas W. Valente, Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine and member of the Institute for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention Research (IPR) at the Keck School of Medicine of USC said that the study has offered researchers a rare opportunity to evaluate the impact of health messages in entertainment.
The study is published in the Sept. 14 Journal of Health Communication and is now available online,
"This study demonstrates the importance of interventions and programs targeted at a population level. We have so many public heath issues to deal with, we can't restrict ourselves to any one strategy. We have to do everything and anything we can to help people improve their health," Valente said.
The storyline depicted an African-American teen who is diagnosed with hypertension during a visit to the emergency room and is advised to eat more fruits and vegetables and to get more exercise. The story aired over three episodes from April 29 to May 13, 2004.
The impact of the episodes was evaluated using three separate datasets, one of which provided data on a sample of 807 primetime viewers before and after the episodes aired. An independent firm collected surveys from viewers, measuring whether their self-reported behaviour and their nutrition attitudes, knowledge and practices were impacted by the storyline.
The results of the evaluation showed that ER viewers were 65 percent more likely to report a positive change in their behaviour after watching the episodes.
The results also suggested that the storyline had modest impacts on knowledge, attitudes and practices. Those who watched ER also had a five percent higher rate of knowledge about nutrition than those who did not. Researchers accounted for a number of factors, including age, sex, ethnicity, income and education.
Interestingly, the effects were stronger for men than they were for women. Researchers theorize this may be because men started with a lower baseline knowledge of the information shown in the episodes.
While the overall impact may be relatively small, the study highlights the potential of entertainment television as a medium for health communication. It can be particularly helpful since people who are heavy TV watchers are more likely to be at risk for obesity.
"People get their information from entertainment. It's not a magic bullet. It's a small piece of the puzzle, but we'd be silly to ignore its potential," Valente said.
Public health experts should also be involved in shaping the health messages that go out to viewers. For the ER storyline, writers from the show contacted the Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) project at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center to request information on the prevalence of hypertension and heart disease among overweight teens.
The findings of the study highlight why such programs are necessary to public health efforts. "We should do everything we can to help ensure the accuracy of health messages in the media," Valente said.