Bringing Real-Life Health Issues to Hollywood
At least that's the goal of the Hollywood, Health and Society (HH&S) program, based at the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center. Triggered by breaking news and guided by the priorities of its funding agencies, the NCI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HH&S works with writers and producers to ensure that accurate, high-priority health information makes it into the movies and TV shows that millions of Americans watch every week.
"Most of the writers and producers on TV shows with whom we work tend not to have medical backgrounds," explained Vicki Beck, the program's director, at an NCI symposium on November 9, where attendees learned about HH&S results and were invited to participate in future efforts. To help writers and producers get it right, HH&S uses a Web site, tip sheets, and a newsletter, Real to Reel, that includes timely health topics and links to fact sheets on the CDC and NCI Web sites. For those who have more specific questions or need more information, HH&S arranges one-on-one consultations and panel discussions with subject matter experts. The program has provided this type of service to more than 60 TV shows, including ER, Law & Order SVU, The Bold and the Beautiful, The George Lopez Show, and Medical Investigation, as well as to shows on the Spanish-language network Telemundo.
During the symposium, Dr. Harold Freeman, the director of NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, talked about working with writers on the upcoming ABC show, Gray's Anatomy , encouraging them to use real-life experiences in their storylines. Dr. Freeman listed some of the cultural myths that can contribute to health disparities, including the idea that cancer spreads when it is exposed to the air - just one reason why someone might refuse surgical treatment for a tumor - and convictions among some cultures that only a woman's husband should touch her in certain places, a concept that might discourage women from Pap screening. "Beliefs play a big role in how people either accept or don't accept health care," he said. "For a [TV writer]…it gets down to the issue of how you get people to make the right choices."
The entertainment industry seems primed for guidance like this. Last May, for example, after contacting HH&S for background on heart disease among teenagers, NBC ran an ER episode in which an obese African American teenager is diagnosed with high blood pressure and later survives cardiac arrest. During his recovery, the teen mentions that he should eat his "five a day" - a success for HH&S, which has heavily promoted NCI's 5 A Day campaign to encourage people to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. An online survey showed that this message stayed with viewers, who reported taking healthy actions, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising, in the 3 months after the episode aired.
"Most writers want to do the right thing," said HH&S project manager Mandy Shaivitz. "They truly are interested in educating audiences, and they recognize the reach and impact of what they do." And with the demand for HH&S services, it's clear that including accurate and compelling health information in scripts does more than just inform the public: It makes for good TV.