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

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.

Photo: @iStockPhoto/Sylvain GabourySimilarly, actor Tom Hanks is in a position to take the lead on educating the public about Type 2 diabetes after announcing his diagnosis in October.

Celebrities can also spread erroneous, potentially harmful information about healthcare, the study noted.

Hoffman and Tan pointed to actress Suzanne Somers' advocacy for anti-aging therapies and pancreatic cancer treatments of dubious effectiveness as an example.

They also cited actress Christina Applegate's promotion of magnetic resonance imaging to detect breast cancer, a treatment not endorsed by the U.S. National Cancer Institute for those at average risk for the disease.

"People are trusting celebrities with their health," Hoffman and Tan wrote.

"While celebrities sometimes encourage healthy behaviours of proven benefit, at other times they spread misinformation and harmful practices. The potential years of life lost and wasted healthcare dollars from all the useless products and bogus treatments that celebrities sometimes promote at the expense of evidence based practices, make this phenomenon a critical challenge worthy of serious address."

To prevent the dissemination of inaccurate medical information by celebrities, Hoffman and Tan recommend that public health institutions partner with celebrities whenever possible.

Examples included actress Glenn Close's mental health advocacy, chef Jamie Oliver's work with U.K. charities and government officials to make school meals healthier, and model Christy Turlington's work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discourage smoking.

"Collaborations with celebrities can be further complemented by counter marketing and social media efforts to discredit incorrect messages from celebrities while spreading evidence-based advice," they added.

To learn more:
- here's the study

Image credits: @iStockPhoto/Sylvain Gaboury; Time