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Health Information in the Age of Celebrity Culture

Health Information in the Age of Celebrity Culture

Celebrities are everywhere. They peek out from magazine covers in the supermarket check-out, they take up space in the newspaper, and permeate the television news. We live in a culture of celebrity.

When celebrities choose to use the spotlight to bring attention to health issues, there is no denying their power, and their ability to do good.

What do you know about Parkinson’s disease aside from what you’ve learned from Michael J. Fox? He stunned his fans when he went public with his diagnosis in 1998. Many of us didn’t think it could happen to such a young man, so we paid attention and learned. Through the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, he has raised awareness… and millions of dollars toward research of this degenerative neurological disorder.

The same can be said of Montel Williams and the Montel Williams MS (multiple sclerosis) Foundation, and the late Christopher Reeve and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Katie Couric televised her colonoscopy, Brooke Shields brought postpartum depression out of the shadows, and Lance Armstrong speaks openly about testicular cancer

In death, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, and Elvis Presley are but a few of the celebrities who have brought attention to the problem of prescription drug abuse but, sadly, have had little impact.

When celebrities delve into the role of health advocate, they bring immediate and compelling attention to their cause of choice, particularly if they have a personal connection. They put a human face — a well-known human face — on a disease or disability. They make us pay attention.

On the other hand, celebrity endorsements of pharmaceuticals and other health products, from herbal supplements to diet plans, can’t be taken at face value. Championing a cause is one thing — endorsing powerful medications in exchange for a fee is quite another. The power of celebrity can so easily be misused. 

Celebrities have every right to get paid for their work, but the public also has the right to know, perhaps even the responsibility to find out if the spokesperson has been paid to endorse the product. Absent a medical degree, a celebrity spokesperson is no better resource for medical information than your next door neighbor. 

We live in a celebrity culture, but when it comes to matters of health, the power of celebrity is a double-edged sword. 

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4 comments

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4:56PM PST on Feb 17, 2013

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7:49AM PDT on Jul 8, 2009

If you think a medical degree is all it takes to be "informed and knowledgeable" on "pharmaceuticals and other health products" - think again. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most corrupt industries there are and, unfortunately, the medical industry, (which includes our doctors) rely on the information fed to them by the pharmaceutical companies.

I know this because I spent 5 years researching the medical industry in one branch of medicine and the misinformation, misunderstanding & lack of information among doctors in that field was mind boggling!

The best thing anyone can do when faced with serious health issues is to become an expert yourself. Research, research, research. Find doctors who are open minded, resourceful and up to date. A doctor who will work with you on your health issues is the best. Most importantly, never trust someone simply because he/she has a medical degree. (And never rule out someone who doesn't.) Dig deep and find out the real facts when it comes to your own health. YOU are the one who has live with these decisions for the rest of your life- not the celebrity spokesperson and not even your doctors. There are experts in all areas, degreed and not degreed - become one yourself!

7:14AM PDT on Jul 8, 2009

Hi Mary,

Do you mean that no one should have health care until everyone in the US has health care - or until everyone in the whole world (which would be much more fair)? Either is a nice sentiment, but this plane of existence is just not "fair".

You could always stop taking your family to the doctor and use all the money you save to give away to others for their health care needs.

Maybe I took your comment too literally? I agree that we should keep working to provide healthcare to all Americans (unfortunately, Americans alone can't take care of the entire world's health care needs). However, the reality of our animal nature as mammals and our survival instinct plays out that most of us will do the most we can to look after our own, even while others can't afford health care yet. I'm guessing you are the same, and that's just nature.

6:56AM PDT on Jul 8, 2009

I think no one should have health care until everyone has health care, these celebrities can afford the best.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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