Watching “Grey’s Anatomy” no longer needs to be considered a guilty pleasure, a recent study shows.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, private organization that focuses on key national healthcare issues, recently conducted a study entitled, “Television as a Health Educator: A Case Study of Grey’s Anatomy.” The experiment used audience surveys of the show to determine if the information planted in the storyline was conveyed and retained. By making phone calls to viewers one week before, one week after and six weeks later, the experimenters were able to show that nearly a third of viewers learned and retained new medical information from watching “Grey’s.”

“In essence, this is a kind of product placement for health information,” Vicky Rideout, the vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said.

Last spring, an episode of the popular ABC drama featured a conversation between Stevens, played by Katherine Heigl, and a pregnant, HIV-positive woman who was struggling to decide whether to keep her baby. In one scene, Stephens tells the woman that she has a 98 percent chance of having a healthy baby.

“We chose this because this is one of the true success stories in the fight against HIV/AIDS in this country, but it’s something that a lot of members of the public are not familiar with,” Rideout said. “As recently as the early 1990s, the rate of transmission in this country was around 25 percent. Today, that rate has been reduced with proper treatment and care.”

Based on telephone interviews, only 15 percent of viewers knew this fact before the episode aired. Afterwards, 61 percent retained the information, and a follow-up interview six weeks later showed 45 percent still remembered.

“Having facts in TV shows may help more people seek healthcare when they know that certain signs and symptoms could be more dangerous to their health,” Tierney Brennan (NHS ’10) said.

“`Grey’s Anatomy’ could also explain diseases in laypeople terms and have more doctor-patient teaching moments,” Brennan said.

While providing the public with essential health information through a popular television show is an easy and effective way to communicate, the ease and simplicity of healthcare reflected in the care from doctors at “Grey’s” Seattle Grace Hospital may give people unrealistic expectations about American hospitals, Sheila Murphy, associate professor, at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, who worked on the study, said.

“Ironically, primetime television may paint an overly optimistic picture of the health landscape in America in that fictional characters encounter few barriers to care, such as lack of insurance, and [few] institutional problems, such as understaffing, lack of resources, long waits, et cetera,” she said.

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