Maybe you didn’t even personally read the latest celebrity health claim. A friend referenced it in passing on social media – and perhaps your friend didn’t tell you where he or she heard that advice. Or you simply noticed increasing buzz surrounding the topic, more momentum to undergo a health screening, to not vaccinate a child, to steam clean –what?
In the disorienting collision between the fast and furious Information Age and frighteningly complex, ever-evolving 21st century health care, many are at a loss to determine what’s best for their health. With no way to possibly process all the disparate, frequently changing messages, experts say passionate accounts from public figures – celebrities – cut through much of the noise and communicate clearly, where health providers often don’t. “I think the crux of much of this problem is that U.S. adults have very low health literacy,” says Dr. Shelly Campo, an associate professor of community and behavioral health at the University of Iowa, with expertise in health communication. “We don’t have a lot of background in science and math and health science,” she says – or a strong grasp of other subjects that would better help us make sense of the whirring medical world. “At the same time, we’ve got an unbelievably complicated health system.”
So we take shortcuts – often unwittingly, unknowingly and even necessarily. And Americans aren’t alone in doing so, says Steven Hoffman, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Ontario, and associate professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
There’s the still widely touted “Katie Couric effect” that led to a bump in Americans seeking colonoscopies immediately after the TV journalist televised her own screening for colon cancer in 2003. Just as singer-songwriter Kylie Minogue’s now decade-old announcement that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer sharply increased mammogram bookings right afterward in several Australia states. And today, “Whenever Dr. Oz recommends something on his TV show to his 4 million American viewers, people immediately search it on Google and sales of those products skyrocket in stores,” says Hoffman, who has studied why celebrities – who, more often, don’t have MDs – affect people’s health decisions. “There have been studies looking at the effects of Jenny McCarthy – [where] people have cited her as a reason for why they don’t vaccinate their children.” Despite subsequent research debunking a purported link between vaccines and autism, the strong anti-vaccine stance of the model, TV host and actress still holds sway.
While many have decried McCarthy’s influence in this area, even benign-seeming claims, like reality TV star and then-pregnant Kim Kardashian’s unequivocal rave reviews last year of morning sickness medication Diclegis, have raised eyebrows and concerns among some in the health field. That’s because experts say passionate support and compelling personal narratives may overshadow the nuance involved in individual decision-making, or overstate a case for a particular prevention, treatment or drug. Kardashian corrected her original endorsement of Diclegis after the Food and Drug Administration took issue with the drug’s maker, Duchesnay, for allowing her to tout the drug’s benefits on social media without also mentioning limitations and risks associated with the drug, which she included in a corrected ad.
The FDA intervention was a reminder of the powerful potential of celebrities to affect individual health behaviors – even if we say we know better. “People are biologically, psychologically and socially hardwired to follow celebrities’ medical advice,” Hoffman says. “In a sense, everything is against us in trying to protect ourselves from it.” One evolutionary reason for this is the need to make relatively quick decisions in the face of a flurry of information. “We’re looking for heuristics, or shortcuts, in order to be able to make decisions,” he says. “That would be like the economics explanation.”
Marketing research finds celebrities transfer their golden glow – their halo – to whatever they endorse, while digging into the sociology literature shows that celebrities’ vast social networks contribute to that considerable influence, Hoffman says. From a psychological standpoint, following celebrity advice limits so-called cognitive dissonance, which might occur when, on the one hand, you adore or identify with this person, while on the other, the celebrity gives rotten health advice that could hurt you. The two don’t compute, and Hoffman says, “could actually create dissonance within our minds and cause psychological stress.”
The antidote? First, take off the rosy 3-D glasses. Don’t take it on face that the face you’ve come to know – and maybe even trust – has good health intel to share. Unless, that is, they have it on good authority. “Some celebrities come out and make public service announcements that are really beneficial,” says Janet Schwartz, an assistant professor of marketing at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, who is an expert in how consumers make health care decisions. Hoffman gives the example of ex-smoker and model/entrepreneur Christy Turlington doing a television ad with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against smoking. Others, like actress Glenn Close, have championed an effort to destigmatize mental illness, in step with broader public health efforts to do the same.
Conversely, where celebrities seem to be taking the leap on their own – or going further out on a limb than reputable health agencies and providers – experts say that’s an obvious red flag. Because a celebrity may be a well-known familiar voice – like a good friend or somebody at the office – that can lend a health claim “an air of legitimacy and authority that is really unsubstantiated by science,” Schwartz says. Consider the source behind the source – if one exists – and the reason for the message as well. “So whenever a celebrity says, ‘This worked for me, I did this.’ I would first want to know, are they getting paid to say that, second, are they trying to sell products for which they do get a financial benefit and, third, how do they actually know that, and why are they promoting this?” Hoffman says. “When Gwyneth Paltrow talks about the benefits of steam cleaning her vagina, people should immediately ask, ‘How does she know that it helps?’”
More to the point, he says, numbers matter. Where large controlled trials lend credibility, one person’s testimony, beyond being difficult or impossible to prove, doesn’t translate to another’s experience. “What one person reports as being beneficial to them is not generalizable to a population,” he says. “Unless … studied by scientists in rigorous ways, it’s really hard to make any kind of claims that people should trust.”
More than anything, experts say, it’s important to return to the basics of medical decision-making. Patients should discuss health concerns and questions with their physicians or other health providers until they get answers that are clear and helpful enough to make an individual decision. “Of course, Dr. Google is probably the first person you turn to,” Schwartz says. Look to reputable sources online, like the CDC, and providers you trust – and get a second opinion on celebrity health claims, just as you might when questioning the advice of a trained health professional. “It’s good to check with multiple sources and see what you’re hearing,” Campo says. That holds whether Dr. Oz is dispensing the advice, a celebrity with no-medical background makes the claim or your own physician leaves you scratching your head.
Celebrities vs. Science: Where Do You Get Your Health Advice? was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.