How celebrities shape our healthcare decisions--for good or for ill

Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Suzanne Somers among the big influencers on patient behavior

Photo: Time

Celebrities like Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie can have a palpable influence on consumer healthcare decisions, for better or for worse, according to a new study published in BMJ.

The researchers, Steven J. Hoffman of the Harvard School of Public Health and Charlie Tan, a student in the Michael DeGroote School of Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario, analyzed marketing, psychology, sociology and economics literature to determine the influence of celebrities on healthcare consumers' behavior.

Their research found that not only do celebrity endorsements differentiate ideas or products, celebrities also "lead the herd" in the types of medical treatment consumers might seek. For example, Hoffman and Tan cited the influence of Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie's preventive double mastectomy, which she chose after learning of her genetic predisposition to breast cancer. Due to its genetic rarity, her public decision "may have catalysed a herd seeking the test, including many for whom it is neither appropriate nor cost effective," they said. After singer Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with the disease, the researchers wrote, mammogram bookings increased 40 percent in four Australian states.