How to position yourself as a go-to source of health info instead

Do you think your patients are too smart to be influenced by health advice from celebrities? There’s no way educated adults would make medical decisions based on a viral Facebook post or an article about a movie star in the news, right? That’s what Valerie A. Jones, M.D., thought, too, until she Googled the HPV vaccine, curious to see what her patients might find. “I was disgusted, angry, and even saddened by what I found,” she wrote on KevinMD.com, describing the sensationalized, medically inaccurate stories that filled her search results.

Whether it’s well-meaning celebrities trying to increase awareness, such as actress Angelina Jolie sharing her decision to have a preventive mastectomy, or downright dangerous misinformation, such as the anti-vaccine stances of celebrities including Jenny McCarthy, here’s why your patients listen to health advice from famous people, and what you can do about it.

Data show influence of celebrities’ health stories on public

Before her Google experience, Dr. Jones said she was “blissfully unaware of the public’s perception” of medical treatment recommendations. “I ignorantly assumed most people go to their physician first for medical information.”

Rates of risk-reducing mastectomies spiked after actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she underwent the procedure.

Numerous studies published in medical journals show that the public is, in fact, measurably influenced by celebrity health stories. A study published last year examined the “celebrity effect” on medical choices by looking at the example of Angelina Jolie’s public decision to undergo a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy in 2013 after learning she had a genetic predisposition for developing breast cancer.

“The researchers found the rate of risk-reducing mastectomies spiked after Jolie’s announcement that she’d undergone the procedure,” with a 50 percent increase in the geographic regions examined during a one-year period, reported NBC News.

CNN reported that after actor Charlie Sheen announced that he was HIV-positive in 2015, sales of in-home HIV testing kits reached record highs, according to a study published in Prevention Science last year.

What celebrities have that doctors don’t

But why would people listen to celebrities who have no medical training? To science-minded doctors, this may make no sense. “What they do have is a platform, something most doctors and scientists don’t have and few will ever possess. People listen to performers with platforms,” wrote Nina Shapiro, M.D., director of pediatric otolaryngology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice.

Celebrities benefit from the “halo effect” – most people have positive responses to the actions or advice of famous people they like or admire.

Social scientist Dr. Frank Niles attributes the public’s behavior to the “halo effect,” at least in the case of Jolie. “When we get exposed to folks through the media we start developing a familiarity almost like they’re part of our family,” he told NBC News. “When we develop positive associations, anything those celebrities endorse or talk about benefits from the halo effect, meaning when we have positive emotional resonances with that individual, we have similarly positive responses to most anything they do.”

Why celebrities may do more harm than good

So what’s the problem if celebrities shed light on health risks and encourage people to take action? Jolie did do some good by bringing awareness to breast cancer and genetic testing, said doctors interviewed by NBC News. However, the larger and more emotional a story becomes – often the case with celebrity health scares – the more likely it is that nuances will be lost and misinformation will spread.

For instance, breast cancer surgeon Dennis Holmes, M.D., emphasized that Jolie had “a very specific medical diagnosis — a hereditary gene mutation that causes breast cancer — that does not affect the majority of the population, or even the majority of women with breast cancer.” He added that mastectomy offers no survival benefit over lumpectomy and radiation.

Many celebrities have spoken out about not vaccinating their children, citing a vaccine-autism link from a widely discredited study.

Some celebrities are doing more serious harm when it comes to vaccines. Jenny McCarthy, a former television host who has linked her son’s autism to his vaccination, as well as actresses Mayim Bialik and Alicia Silverstone, have spoken out about not vaccinating their children, often citing a vaccine-autism link stemming from a widely discredited study in the late 1990’s.

Think these stories don’t influence the public’s behavior? The New York Times reported that the U.S. is seeing cases of infectious diseases that were thought to be eradicated, including whooping cough and an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in 2015, due in part to the misinformation being circulated by celebrities.

What doctors can do to minimize celebrities’ influence on patients

So what can doctors do to combat this alarming trend? Instead of being reactive, be proactive. Provide patient education in a format that’s accessible, appealing, easy to understand, and – this is key – shareable online. Most patients probably won’t pass along a brochure, but they might send a link of an informative video to friends or share a blog post on Facebook. For example, this short, simple video explains how vaccines work:

 

This post weaves celebrity news into a reader-friendly post about glaucoma, which includes patient education videos: Six Ways to Improve Glaucoma Awareness. And here’s an example of how the Harvard Health Blog responded to news reports that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has shingles.

Doctors need to be proactive about providing accessible, appealing, and shareable patient education online, such as through blog posts or videos.

Also, doctors need to take an active role in social media, said Dr. Jones. If you never make time to check out Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, you may not be prepared when patients bring up current issues that are trending online.

She encourages doctors to share medical information in blog posts and on social media. “This is our responsibility. Of course, the public is going to be drawn more to stories of human interest regarding vaccines and latest trends instead of dry, data-heavy medical journals …We need to tell our stories, of course in a HIPAA-compliant way, but tell them in a way people will want to listen or read them.”

For tips on using social media effectively and efficiently, download our latest eBook, How to Build a Strong Online Brand: The Doctor’s Guide to the Internet.