A new study, published in The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), found that over 60,000 people stopped taking their prescribed statins after a show was aired that criticized their popularity.
It’s no secret that even seemingly inconsequential behavior in television shows or movies can start trends. The fodder of marketers worldwide, people can be easily persuaded by what they see or hear in the media. And it’s not a new thing.
In 1934, when Clark Gable disrobed in It Happened One Night, he wasn’t wearing an undershirt. When men around the world noted that Gable had skipped the garment, undershirt sales plummeted.
Media effects on public health
Media can impact a whole lot more than fashion trends, however. In 2012, the US Surgeon General concluded that exposure to smoking onscreen—whether in movies, commercials, or television shows—increased the rate of smoking among youth. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the more smoking young people see on screen, the more likely they are to start smoking.”
Even one television show, especially if it airs on a respected public broadcasting network, can have a significant impact on public health. A new study, published in The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), found that over 60,000 people stopped taking their prescribed statins after a show was aired that criticized their popularity.
How one show prompted 60,000+ Australians to go off their meds
Catalyst, a well-reputed science program by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), aired two episodes in October 2013 questioning the link between cholesterol and heart disease. The aim of the second program was to highlight the over-prescription of statins, which 2-3 million Australians were estimated to be taking at the time. The debate focused on the marketing efforts of pharmaceutical companies, which may inflate the potential benefits of the cholesterol-lowering drugs, and their use in primary care settings.
Although ABC’s Catalyst intended to show both sides in a healthy debate, its own internal review revealed some bias, both in narration and the way the facts were presented. Specifically, the program stated:
If you are told that you have a 2 in 100 chance of living longer if you take a drug, we think any reasonable person would conclude that the probability of living longer with the drug is low given they have a 98% chance of NOT living longer. If you say that a drug reduces a person’s risk by a relative risk of 50%, then it’s deceptive because the actual or absolute risk went from 2% down to 1%.
In the eight months following the Catalyst broadcast, an estimated 60,897 fewer people had statins dispensed than expected. If patients continue to avoid statins over the next five years, this could result in between 1,522 and 2,900 preventable, and potentially fatal, heart attacks and strokes.
Following ABC’s own internal investigation into the matter, the Catalyst episodes were removed from its website and the results of the investigation made public. However, when the MJA article went to press in mid-2014, the Catalyst effect had not slowed. Associate professor Sallie Pearson, PhD, senior author of the study and scientific director of the Center of Research Excellence in Medicines and Aging notes:
What is particularly concerning is that this drop in statin use was seen in people who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease - for example, those who were also taking medications for diabetes. Heart attacks and strokes are the main killers of people with diabetes. Statins are recommended for people at high risk of cardiovascular disease because they have been shown to be effective. However, like all medications, they have risks and benefits and should only be used as recommended.
Media plays critical role in public health
Speaking to the persuasiveness of media on individual health decisions, and public health more broadly, Australia National University professor and co-author of the MJA article, Emily Banks, PhD, states:
The media has a critical role to play in questioning the status quo and in helping people to make sense of health information. These findings demonstrate the power of the media and how serious the consequences can be if reporting is not balanced and informed.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.