TV Focuses More Sharply on Health Issues

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - Health policy issues are consistently - and, on the whole, impartially - turning up in the plots of popular hospital-based television dramas, according to a study released Tuesday by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

The data were released and dissected at a Washington, D.C. forum designed to explore "the role of entertainment media in shaping public attitudes and priorities on health policy issues."

"We know that Hollywood has the power to really produce a very visual image and really paint the faces of some of the people involved in the health policy decisions in a memorable and enduring way," said Dianne Rowland, Kaiser Foundation executive vice president.

The forum featured health policy representatives as well as persons in the entertainment industry, including the medical supervisor of two medical-oriented television programs and the screenwriter for John Q., the film about a boy unable to obtain a heart transplant because of inadequate insurance coverage.

The study by the Kaiser Foundation, a philanthropic organization concentrating on heath care issues, examined 74 episodes of four television dramas during the 2000-2001 season: ER, Gideon's Crossing, City of Angels, and Strong Medicine.

"Using the method of quantitative content analysis, we explored the extent to which, and the way in which, arguments over health policy issues showed up on prime time television over several months," stated the report.

The Kaiser data suggest that Hollywood is currently taking something of a neutral stance on the issues, with 48% of all scenes presenting both sides of various health care issues "in an even handed manner," according to the foundation.

The remaining health issue scenes were evenly split between those opposing the status quo and those supporting current health care policy.

Although KFF found health policy issues to regularly emerge in medical dramas, it also discovered that "many of the most hotly debated health policy issues such as prescription drug coverage for the elderly or coverage of the uninsured are not featured on these fictional shows."

On average, one health policy-related issue was addressed per episode, with an average of 1.7 "individual interactions," or scenes, in each episode. Of these, 59 percent involved public policy issues, as opposed to hospital-based debates or malpractice cases.

The KFF findings also showed that depictions of attorneys, insurance companies, and HMOS were "largely negative," while references to other "institutional players" in the health policy arena were "mixed," that is neither positive or negative.

Is combining the entertainment industry with public health policy a good idea? The KFF says yes.

According to the report's conclusion, watching TV characters take on important health issues resonates with real people in similar situations, and "may stimulate thinking and encourage people to see other points of view."

The report also said that the plots seemed to "challenge, even jar, viewers emotionally and intellectually about such issues as needle exchange, patient confidentiality, the right of a desperately ill child to choose death instead of treatment, and even malpractice."

In addition, Rowland emphasized the "staying power" of the visual image, asserting that lawmakers like to "legislate by anecdote," because they can easily connect to the "basic human story."

"Through storylines and characters, we can see what happens when an uninsured family seeks care and is turned away, or when a senior citizen skips medication because the drugs cost too much," explained Rowland.

"Fictional TV shows reach a much wider audience than most news programs, and in many ways they can be even more powerful," said Vicky Rideout, a KFF vice president who supervised the study.

"Instead of bill numbers and budget figures, health policy issues are portrayed through the lives of characters the viewer cares about, often in life-or-death situations," Rideout added.

The foundation's report concluded that the study "is a clear signal that prime time hospital tales and their consequences should be a topic of continuing discussion and analysis."

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