Hollywood and health: Harnessing the power of storytelling

TV shows like SVU: Special Victims Unit have been able to boost viewers' health knowledge.

TV shows like SVU: Special Victims Unit have been able to boost viewers' health knowledge.

May 1, 2012

Twelve years ago, in a survey of TV viewers who regularly watched the show ER, only 24% had ever heard of human papilloma virus. A week later, after an ER segment on the virus, that figure shot up to 47%.

More recently, a “bubble tweet” (a short online video that can be added to Twitter pages)—an emotional clip about rape in Congo, from an episode of SVU: Special Victims Unit—got a million hits.

Both examples show how television dramas can help convey important information about public health issues, said Neal Baer, MD ’96, at an April 13, 2012 talk at Harvard School of Public Health. Baer, a pediatrician, is also an award-winning television writer and producer. He’s worked on a number of shows over the past 18 years—including China BeachERSVU: Special Victims Unit, and A Gifted Man.

Baer said both television and new media offer plenty of ways to share stories. The most important thing, he said—whether the venue is television, the web, online articles or blogs, or tweets—is to tell stories about how individual people are affected by public health issues, instead of offering only dry statistics.

“Do journal articles really turn you on?” Baer asked. “Most people, no.” He added, “Most people are turned on by movies, television shows, novels, poems, or music.”

Emotional pull

Baer offered numerous examples of how television shows have helped educate viewers about public health issues. One ER storyline told how nurse Jeanie Boulet (played by Gloria Reuben) was diagnosed with HIV, but went on to live a healthy life. “Until then, people thought that HIV would make you die,” Baer said. “It was important to bust the myths.”

Another ER episode featured the surgical checklist developed by HSPH associate professor and surgeon Atul Gawande, who helped with the script for that show. When resident John Carter (Noah Wyle) needed a kidney transplant, his friend Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) insisted that the surgeon operating on him use the checklist, and it saved Carter’s life. “That had a profound impact,” Baer said. “The next day, hospitals were forcing their surgery staffs to watch the show. And Atul told me that he never had such an impact as when that show was on.”

Baer also showed several clips from SVU: Special Victims Unit episodes—about Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and how torture affects the body; on the implications of not vaccinating children; and on the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. In each instance, Baer was able to use the shows to explore the complexities of each issue through the characters’ emotional stories.

Spreading the word

Baer also spoke about how he’s been able to augment public health information featured on television shows.

During ER’s run, he worked on a project in which the local NBC affiliate in cities across the U.S. would air a short piece on the 11 p.m. news that expanded on a health topic that had been addressed in the show.

And to spread the word about topics dramatized on SVU: Special Victims Unit, Baer worked with the online organization TakePart.com to offer viewers information on how to help solve health issues they learned about on the show.

Often, after one of Baer’s medical shows airs on a particular health topic, he can monitor Google trends to see the effect on web traffic around that topic in the following days. Because those numbers often spike, Baer knows he’s reaching a lot of people. So he works hard to provide the most accurate public health information possible. “People do learn from television,” he said.

Learn more

Designated Driver Campaign: Harvard center helped to popularize solution to a national problem (HSPH feature)

Hollywood Smoke-Out: HSPH takes on tobacco on screen (Harvard Public Health Review)