Worldwide, 1.5 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 24, and 1.3 billion of them live in developing countries. Irresponsible behavior today can have far-reaching consequences that affect their immediate health as well as their future opportunities and those of their offspring. Gaining access to health education and being aware of health services that are available is vital if today’s young people are to lead healthy productive lives and make informed choices. Yet many youth today find themselves cut off from the information outlets and youth-friendly service providers they so desperately need. Strategic investments in such areas as reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and prevention of other infectious diseases, and basic health education on preventable causes of death are critical in addressing growing health crises in underserved communities worldwide. There is hardly a person to whom the question of health is not a matter of interest and concern. Much of this scourge can be avoided by widespread enlightenment of the public that health is a personal responsibility. Yet, how many know even basic tenets of how to keep good health?
On the occasion of India’s Republic Day, lets take the analogy of the Constitution of India. We celebrated this day 60 times since it happened. Generations grew up hearing about it and studying about it in schools and colleges. Yet, how many of us know are AWARE? Shoba Narayan wrote in an article published in Lounge last week that though “…born of a messy consensus, the Indian Constitution is a magnificent document. Yet, it also needs to be rewritten, not in the literal sense but in order to popularize it and make it speak to “we the people” who have inherited its doctrines.” Ask 20 Indians in any city what they know about our Constitution. Ask 100 college students if they know anything about it. I am willing to bet good money that you’ll find one, maybe two Indians who will have some clue about what our Constitution says. I think the same logic and ratio is applicable to awareness on healthcare as well.
Health literacy is incredibly important and we need to do more to educate the public about how they should educate themselves. The issue is about creating value around this information. Removing the sordidness and adding entertaining value. That’s exactly the point. Entertainment! Will health messages that are embedded into entertainment be better received by consumers. More importantly, will this cause people to live healthier lives? The question is how to judge and assess the quality of the health information consumers get through entertainment.
For many people, prime-time entertainment means heart-stopping thrills and compelling story lines. But while most regard these programs as pure entertainment, research suggests that these shows can also be an important source of health information for their audiences. A study, that assessed the impact of health messages embedded within an episode of the popular hospital-based TV show “Grey’s Anatomy”, showed how health messages embedded in TV programs affected audience awareness of medical issues. To measure the impact of health messages in medical dramas, researchers worked with the writers of “Grey’s Anatomy” to embed a health message in an episode of the popular program. In this case, the storyline involved a pregnant woman who was HIV positive, and the message was that she had a 98% chance of having a healthy baby given proper treatment. Viewers of the episode completed a survey before and after the episode aired. What the researchers found was that while only 15% of viewers knew before the show that mother-to-child transmission of HIV was overwhelmingly preventable, 61 percent were familiar with this fact after viewing the episode. A follow-up survey found that nearly half of viewers – 45% — retained this information six weeks later. Given how many people are multitasking when they are watching TV, the fact that nearly half of the audience picked up on the factual information in the show and remembered it later was actually astounding.
This study suggests entertainment TV may be a largely unexploited tool when it comes to reaching the masses with important health information. Today, people in the West turn to television for a great deal of information, including health. This is opportunity for both government controlled and privatized channels to create TV content that are sources of health information. Not just the news media but also entertainment programming can emerge as an important source of health information. It is critical for us to have accurate, timely, relevant health information through a channel that people can use to protect and promote their health. This means using every single medium at our disposal to do so. During informal discussions with friends and colleagues revealed that more than half of regular TV viewers said that they trusted the health information in TV shows to be accurate. This means that they didn’t bother to cross-check the content for authenticity.
Even then, with prime time shows resorting to exaggeration and hype, can audiences also get the wrong idea from entertainment shows? It’s very likely. Taking incorrect messages to heart could possibly be terrifying for some, who might subsequently believe that their common symptoms are a sign of a rare, difficult-to-treat affliction. But, even if we’re talking about the flipside, I think that it can be a positive, because it gets people talking and thinking. It contributes to an elevated interest and motivation to be responsible and vigilant with regard to one’s own health. Let’s say something is hyped. This does still have a positive effect of having people take steps toward a greater degree of awareness.
Today, at least in India, a great deal depends on the revered doctor — the family physician. Very few of us bother to question or cross-check his diagnosis or prescription – much less ask for additional information – of our ailment. In the interest of spreading health awareness and a healthy society, we must not place health related issues on so high a pedestal that it stops resonating with the very people who benefit from it. Simply put, we need to popularize health and medicines, we must make it fun and easy to understand.
We need to market it, not only to the scholars who read Goodman & Gilman and Hurst and Topol, but to the teenagers who listen to Bollywood rap. We need A.R. Rahman’s compositions, Rajkumar Hirani [who almost did it through Munnabhai MBBS], Karan Johar and Nagesh Kukunoor’s creative renditions on it. We need Mallu and Sardarji jokes on health [or the lack of it]; we need to get Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and our very own Shekhar Suman and Raju Srivastava to banter about its issues; we need ad jingles that skew its message; we need Ekta Kapoor and Rajesh Kamat to include copious doses of it in their saas-bahu and downtrodden women serials that invoke its importance; we need college debates and reality shows based on it.All it takes is a few celebrities to get the ball rolling. Minister Tharoor and fellow Tweeters such as Gul Panag, SRK and Priyanka Chopra can help . Chetan Bhagat can write about it. And so on and so forth.
By making healthcare information entertaining enough to access, we not only help India’s future citizens know what’s good for their lives, we also teach both the elite and the common man not to take life for granted. The lofty ideals of pharmaceutical companies are worthy indeed. They just need to trickle down from executives and their customers and scholars to schoolchildren; from libraries to lounge bars; from educational institutions to nukkads and addas. Simplifying and popularizing health and healthy living will mean a vibrant and productive society.
Exploiting a widespread medium and converting it into a “Health Tool” is a really unusual way for percolating a public good such as healthcare. But the industry through constant consultation with medical experts and government can ensure that such messages get out on a regular basis. And such medical messages may have the welcome side effect of increasing the health knowledge of viewers and society at large.