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The Effectiveness of Placing Health Information in Popular TV Shows

Source: Victoria Rideout, “Television as a Health Educator: A Case Study of Grey’s Anatomy,” The Kaiser Family Foundation (September 2008): 1-27.


This study, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2008, looked at how health information in popular television shows can influence viewers’ knowledge and attitudes. The researchers chose a health issue they presumed to be relatively unknown or misunderstood: HIV-positive women giving birth. The Kaiser Family Foundation collaborated with the writers and producers of Grey’s Anatomy, a popular drama about young medical providers at a fictional hospital in Seattle, to clearly present an easily understood health fact. During the episode, two characters repeatedly emphasized one concise health fact: with proper medical treatment, HIV-positive pregnant women have a 98 percent chance of giving birth to a healthy baby not infected with HIV.

To see whether this message made an impact, the study used three different sample waves. Each wave used a separate sample of 500 regular viewers of Grey’s Anatomy, or people who indicated “that they usually watch at least three out of four new episodes of the show.”  The first wave of participants was given a survey before the Grey’s Anatomy episode aired in order to establish a baseline of viewers’ knowledge about mother-to-child HIV transmission. The second wave of participants was given a survey directly after the episode aired in order to measure the immediate response from viewers. And the third wave of participants was given a survey six weeks after the episode aired in order to analyze how well viewers retained the new health information. 

Participants were asked two main questions. The first was designed to test viewers’ knowledge of the health fact: “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 – that is, a baby who is NOT infected with HIV?” The second question was to measure a change in viewers’ attitudes: “Do you agree or disagree: it is irresponsible for a woman who knows she is HIV positive to have a baby.”

Key Findings:
  • The proportion of viewers who were knowledgeable about the HIV health fact quadrupled from 15% before the show aired to 61% directly after. 
  • The proportion of viewers who retained the HIV health fact six weeks later dropped to 45%.
  • The proportion of viewers who agreed that “it is irresponsible for a woman who knows she is HIV positive to have a baby” decreased by almost half, from 61% before the show aired to 31% directly after. 
  • After six weeks, the proportion of viewers who had the attitude that is was irresponsible for an HIV positive woman to have a child increased to 47% but did not return to the original 61% before the show aired. 
  • Regular viewers ages 18–39 and with annual incomes below $50,000 were more likely to say that they had ever learned something new about health from the show.
SIECUS Analysis:

This study provides valuable new information about an innovative method for health professionals to reach the public. The results of this study are clear: putting accurate health information in popular television shows does significantly affect viewers’ awareness and attitudes of health issues. Viewers’ knowledge and attitudes surrounding HIV-positive women giving birth were significantly changed after watching the Grey’s Anatomy episode. 

According to the Nielsen ratings, the Grey’s Anatomy episode that contained this HIV health fact had over 17.5 million viewers. The authors explained that, “if 47% of [the viewers] absorbed the HIV-related information in the show, this means that more than 8 million people learned this correct information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates by watching the episode.”  The researchers also found that younger viewers and those with yearly incomes less than $50,000 were more likely to have ever learned something from the show. These results suggest that health professionals may be able to access specific audiences with tailored health messages. 

In addition to reaching millions of people at once, health information that already is presented in shows like Grey’s Anatomy has been shown to directly influence viewers’ behavior. According to the study, more than 3 million viewers indicated that they have gone to a doctor at least once about a health issue that they had seen on Grey’s Anatomy.   Given this information, it is imperative that television producers and health professionals work together to ensure that the health content in episodes is accurate and unbiased.

This study proves that medically accurate television, specifically programs where viewers are already involved with the characters and storylines, can function as another tool to disseminate health information to the public.