Health Care: Do Celebrities Know Best?

April 25, 2013

By Emma Gorynski

Faculty Peer Reviewed

The power that celebrities have over Americans is undeniable. We look to them for guidance on what to listen to, what to wear, and even what to name our children. Celebrities even affect the decisions we make about our own health care. With the increasing popularity of direct-to-consumer advertising, celebrities are promoting pharmaceuticals and other health-related products.

Is there a role for celebrities in health advocacy? On one hand, celebrities can increase public awareness of medical conditions and encourage people to be more proactive with their health. However, celebrities are not medically trained, and the uneducated public may be inappropriately swayed by their advice. The public is much more likely to listen to their favorite actress’s opinions on breast cancer screening than that of the United States Preventive Services Task Force. While we may not be able to change celebrities’ actions, we should be aware of the information our patients are receiving so that we can encourage the beneficial messages and correct any misinformation.

By discussing health issues, celebrities serve as free public health campaigns. They can increase awareness and funding and encourage early detection of diseases. In 2000 Katie Couric demonstrated the power of celebrity opinion when she advocated for colon cancer screening after the death of her husband. Aware that a screening colonoscopy is dreaded and feared procedure for many patients, Ms. Couric underwent a live, on-air colonoscopy on The Today Show following a weeklong cancer awareness campaign.[1] The impact she had on the public, now known as the “Couric Effect,” was remarkable. Cram and colleagues found a 20% increase in screening colonoscopies after her campaign.[1]

In the same year, Michael J. Fox became the face of Parkinson’s disease after his diagnosis. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has raised $85 million.[2] After Olympic cyclist Lance Armstrong’s diagnosis of testicular cancer, it became fashionable to wear yellow Livestrong bracelets showing support for the battle against cancer. Since its creation in 2004, over 55 million bracelets, each costing $1, have been sold.[2] This idea has expanded to include different colored bracelets for different types of cancer: pink for breast, gray for brain, and light blue for prostate. Thanks to the money raised by these celebrity advocates, more research can be done to advance scientific and clinical knowledge about these diseases.

But at what costs do these celebrity health endorsements come? While most people regard the efforts of celebrities as beneficial and even heroic, we must consider the negative impact they can have on the healthcare system. Celebrity recommendations are often not based on evidence. Media coverage of a celebrity’s illness can lead to inappropriate healthcare budget prioritization, as shown by a study in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Kelaher and colleagues studied the incidence of breast imaging, image-guided biopsy, and cancer excisions among 25-to-44 year old Australian women following singer Kylie Minogue’s widely publicized breast cancer diagnosis in 2005.[3] Breast imaging in this population increased by 20% following Minogue’s diagnosis; however, the number of breast cancers requiring surgical excision did not change. This suggests that there was excessive breast imaging in women who were not recommended to undergo routine screening. (See Reference 4 for the National Cancer Institute’s recommendations on breast cancer screening).

Just as people seek to emulate celebrities’ taste in clothes and style, they seek the same treatment that celebrities receive for their illnesses. Unfortunately, many people fail to realize that celebrities can invest more money, time, and effort in health care than the average American. For example, following his equestrian accident in 1995, Christopher Reeve received extensive treatment for his spinal cord injury. He reported recovering the ability to move his left index finger, his feet, and right wrist, and regaining sensation over much of his body due to electrical stimulation therapy.[5] Patients with spinal cord injuries were hopeful that they too could have such a recovery. However, Reeve received a lot of free care and equipment due to his celebrity status and was able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in his medical care. These resources are not available to the general public and can lead to a false sense of hope.

In this age of celebrity worship, the public, as well as the medical community, is easily influenced by media coverage of celebrity health campaigns. While publicity about a celebrity’s illness can provide an opportunity to promote public health, it can also result in inappropriate health care spending. These factors need to be considered by both doctors and patients to ensure proper treatment for the individual and society at large.

By Emma Gorynski, 4th year medical student at NYU School of Medicine

Peer reviewed by Ishmeal Bradley, MD, Section Editor, Clinical Correlations

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


1) Cram P, Fendrick AM, Inadomi J, Cowen ME, Carpenter D, Vijan S. The impact of a celebrity promotional campaign on the use of colon cancer screening: the Katie Couric effect. Arch Intern Med. 2003:163(13):1601-1605.

2) Van Dusen A. Celebrity health causes.  Published November 22, 2006. Accessed March 5, 2012.

3) Kelaher M, Cawson J, Miller J, Kavanagh A, Dunt D, Studdert DM. Use of breast cancer screening and treatment services by Australian women aged 25-44 years following Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. Int J Epidemiol. 2008:37(6):1326-1332.

4) National Cancer Institute. Breast cancer screening (PDQ®).  Updated March 30, 2012.  Accessed February 19, 2012.

5) Blakeslee S. Christopher Reeve regains some movement, doctor says. New York Times.  Published September 12, 2002. Accessed March 5, 2012.