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Ethics briefings
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Gillian Romano-Critchley,
  3. Julian Sheather,
  4. Ann Sommerville
  1. BMA Ethics Department

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    Entertainment media and public health

    Ethics briefings have previously drawn attention to ethical questions raised by the use of paternity testing in “true life” entertainment programmes, including where the proper limits to the use of medical procedures and information as entertainment might lie.1 From a public health perspective the relationship between entertainment media and health is complex and interesting. In April 2001, for example, a storyline opened in the UK television soap opera Coronation Street in which a central character, Alma, developed cervical cancer and, within six weeks, died. Although the potential for entertainment media to promote positive health messages is recognised,2 the effects of this particular storyline have yet to be fully understood.

    While public health medicine can take advantage of the extraordinary reach of the entertainment media—Coronation Street is broadcast four times a week and regularly attracts 13 million viewers an episode—the effects of this influence need to be carefully considered, particularly when, as in this case, the story was not designed to deliver a particular health message. Researchers have estimated that an additional 14 000 cervical smears were performed in England’s North West as a result of the Coronation Street storyline, 21% more than the previous year.3 It may be argued that this presents an example of the positive influence of the media on health education and service uptake, although the reality is complicated. Of those estimated 14 000 additional smears, slightly less than 2500 were for women who were either overdue or had never had a smear test before.4 Although this resulted in a positive health benefit for the estimated 65 women who would otherwise not have had a “significant abnormality” detected, it did so at the cost of nearly 12 000 unnecessary or untimely smears. This increase in demand put considerable pressure on the service …

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