October 7, 2012

Celebrity Health

When Robin Roberts, Padma Lakshmi or Kylie Minogue talk about their health, they raise awareness. But there's a downside.

Celebrities can call attention to important health issues by going public with their own illnesses. Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts has talked openly about her breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent need for a bone marrow transplant after developing myelodysplastic syndrome (sometimes called pre-leukemia). Padma Lakshmi, the host of Top Chef, has talked publicly about her treatment for endometriosis, which led her to co-found the Endometriosis Foundation of America.

That higher profile is good, but one must be careful to take any information provided about or by a celebrity as just one piece of data, Barron Lerner, professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, told TheDoctor. He went on to say that what happens to a celebrity, or the course of treatment that they chose to pursue, does not translate into a complete action plan.

Because celebrities are getting involved in public health issues now, an informal ethical code should govern their behavior, so that ideally, they are not getting paid, but if they are, they disclose it.

The issue of celebrity involvement in public health campaigns was recently debated in published papers in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). An Australian researcher, Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney in Australia, believes celebrities can help promote public health. Although celebrities are not experts, Chapman said, they “often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse.”

He argues that critics never cite examples of celebrity involvement that have brought attention to rarely-discussed health issues, or celebrity involvement in campaigns that promote evidence-based health policy reform.

Lerner, who is also author of the book When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine, said that, “In a society that is overly involved in the lives of celebrities, you will draw in an additional population of people [if a celebrity goes public about an illness], because there is a celebrity associated with it.” He went on to say that the media is going to be more interested in covering a celebrity’s illness in general, because it makes for good copy, and more people will read the article.

Taking the other side of the debate was Geof Rayner, former chair of the UK Public Health Association. He expressed concern about celebrity influence. Although celebrities may draw attention over the short term to an illness or a public health campaign, the celebrities themselves run the risk of becoming the story, rather than the campaign or issue at hand.

Rayner, who is also an honorary research fellow at City University in London, U.K., says new ways of publicizing public health issues are needed. He mentions campaign groups that “bring together the lobbying power of thousands of ordinary people through the internet.”

The more complicated the disease gets, according to Lerner, the more responsibility everyone, including celebrities, the general public, and health care providers, has to scrutinize the information that is being put out there. For example, it would be unfortunate if young women, for whom mammography is of no medical value, got the test because they heard about Kylie Minogue, the Australian singer who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s.

“For good or bad, part of the job of doctors now is to sift through the material that the patients bring to us, and help them make an informed decision,” Lerner said. He went on to say that because celebrities are getting involved in public health issues now, an informal ethical code should govern their behavior, so that ideally, they are not getting paid, but if they are, they disclose it.

The papers by Chapman and Rayner were published online as Head to Head features in the British Medical Journal.

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