From Our 2008 Archives

Grey's Anatomy Raises Health Awareness

Episode With 'Embedded' Health Message Shifted Viewers' Attitudes About HIV-Positive Mothers

By Kelley Colihan
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 19, 2008 -- Television has been called a "vast wasteland," but there is no denying the power of prime time.

Health educators slipped a message about HIV-positive mothers into a story line in the popular TV show Grey's Anatomy.

Then they tested whether viewers got that message.

Researchers from Kaiser Family Foundation, led by Victoria Rideout, met with Grey's Anatomy writers and staff.

One staff member was an ob-gyn who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.

The group also included a young woman, HIV positive since she was 19, who recently gave birth to a healthy baby with her HIV-negative husband.

The story line included a young HIV-positive woman who finds out she is pregnant and first demands an abortion, fearing she will pass the virus that causes AIDS to her child.

She learns that with proper treatment she has a 98% chance of delivering a baby who is HIV-free.

Randomly selected regular Grey's Anatomy watchers were questioned, testing their knowledge and attitudes about HIV-positive women giving birth.

Three surveys were given, one before the show aired in May 2008, a week after the show aired, and a follow-up six weeks later.

Here is one question viewers were asked:

"As far as you know, if a woman who is HIV positive becomes pregnant and receives the proper treatment, what is the chance that she will give birth to a healthy baby, not infected with HIV?

The answer? There is a more than 90% chance of having a healthy baby with the right treatment.

Here are the percentages of viewers who got that right:

  • Before the show aired, 15% answered correctly.
  • 61% knew it a week after seeing the show.
  • 45% retained that knowledge six weeks later.

The respondents were asked whether this next statement was true or false:

"If a woman who has HIV or AIDS becomes pregnant, there is nothing that can be done to prevent the virus from infecting the unborn baby."

  • A week before the episode aired, 53% knew the correct answer. (It's false.)
  • A week after the show aired, 76% knew the answer was false.
  • Six weeks after the program aired, 63% still knew the correct answer.

Attitude Adjustment

It seems viewers' attitudes shifted when it came to whether HIV-positive women should have children.

The viewers were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement:

"It is irresponsible for a woman who knows she is HIV positive to have a baby."

  • Before watching the show, 61% answered yes.
  • A week after watching the show, only 34% said it was irresponsible.
  • Six weeks after the show aired, 47% of viewers said it was irresponsible.

Because of a lack of knowledge about advances made in treating pregnant HIV-positive women, these women are often judged, researchers say.

Kaiser says more than 8 million people "absorbed" the message that with the right care, an HIV-positive woman is very likely to give birth to a baby without HIV.

According to prepared statements from study author Victoria Rideout, "For better or worse, viewers do absorb the health information they see on TV, so it's important for these shows to get it right."

Rideout says that television can be a powerful teacher. "This study shows the enormous potential for entertainment television to serve as a health educator."

More Results

  • 29% of Grey's Anatomy viewers believe medical information on the show is "very" accurate.
  • 58% think the TV medical information is "somewhat" accurate.
  • 45% of viewers say they picked up some new medical tidbit from the program.

The study also found that 17% of Grey's Anatomy viewers (about 3 million people) were inspired to "find more information" or speak to their doctors or someone in the health field about some issue they saw on the show.

"We've always known we have a passionate and engaged audience at Grey's Anatomy," the show's Director of Medical Research Elizabeth Klaviter says in a news release.

"But this study shows us how much they are affected by the health information in the show, and that's a responsibility we take very seriously," she says.

SOURCES: Rideout, V., "Television as a Health Educator: A Case Study of Grey's Anatomy," A Kaiser Family Foundation Report, September 2008. News release, Kaiser Family Foundation.

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