By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Six years ago NBC “Today” co-anchor Katie Couric underwent a groundbreaking televised colonoscopy, giving viewers a close-up view of her intestines in all their not-so-pretty detail. She still hears about it every week from a steady stream of viewers, many with stories to tell about how the show influenced their own decision to seek treatment.
It was unusual television, not for the squeamish, but its power was undeniable. It made Ms. Couric many fans in the medical establishment, which is not always full of praise for health care reporting on television.
“I really do believe celebrities have a key role to play in disseminating important public health information,” said Dr. Mark Fendrick, professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and co-author of a 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that documented a positive “Katie Couric effect” on colon cancer screening as a result of the broadcast.
Ms. Couric came to the topic of colorectal cancer due to a personal tragedy-the 1998 death of her husband, Jay Monahan, from the disease. But her reporting was unusual in that she herself was healthy. Often it has been medical misfortune in the news media world that has inspired similar upticks in media focus.
NBC News correspondent David Bloom died covering the 2003 Iraq invasion, but news outlets found room in their busy newscasts to discuss the medical cause of his death-a pulmonary embolism that resulted from deep vein thrombosis. The cause of as many as 200,000 American deaths annually, DVT can be prevented, and Mr. Bloom’s widow, Melanie Bloom, last week launched a DVT education effort, preventdvt.org, to a flurry of media coverage.
The death of ABC News fixture Peter Jennings from lung cancer last August provoked a similar surge in attention. ABC News produced “Quit to Live,” a weeklong series on the disease, which until recently didn’t get its fair share of media coverage despite being the most deadly form of cancer in the United States. The network aired the series during the November sweeps.
There was anecdotal evidence that Mr. Jennings’ death inspiredmany Americans to get X-rays or other screenings, said Dr. Fendrick. Those tests are harder to track than colonoscopies, so it is difficult to quantify the impact of Mr. Jennings’ passing on the public’s behavior, he said.
By contrast, the University of Michigan researchers, working with a colleague at the University of Iowa, documented that colonoscopies jumped more than 20 percent in the months following Ms. Couric’s on-air test. The higher rate of testing continued for nine months, according to the study, which was based on data from 400 endoscopists and patients in a managed care organization.
Dr. Fendrick said it is difficult from a research perspective to determine whether there has been an ongoing direct effect from that first broadcast. But he was full of praise for the role that celebrity spokespeople can play in public health education.
Celebrities, he said, are increasingly concerned that “their message falls within what is accepted medicine,” though public behavior isn’t easy to control. The Los Angeles-based Entertainment Information Foundation, which established the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance in 2000 with Ms. Couric and Lilly Tartikoff, widow of former NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, has been a valuable resource, ensuring accuracy, Dr. Fendrick said.
In the case of the “Couric effect,” an increased proportion of those seeking the tests in the immediate wake of the broadcast were women and people under 50. “Ms. Couric knows that recommending that young people get colon screening is in conflict with what gastroenterologists recommend,” Mr. Fendrick said. Two years ago, during the annual week that “Today” devotes to colon cancer awareness, the show’s weatherman Al Roker got his own on-air colonoscopy, just before he turned 50, the age at which doctors recommend screening begin for most people.
Last October Ms. Couric had a televised mammogram. And in the past six months both Oprah Winfrey and Ms. Couric’s “Today” co-anchor, Matt Lauer, have had televised heart scans.