Study: TV shows key to health care views

Skeins neutral on issues except with HMOs

WASHINGTON — Timed to the video and DVD release of “John Q.,” the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study Tuesday showing that the entertainment biz has become a key player in shaping public opinion about health issues.

Survey concluded that popular hospital dramas airing during the 2000-2001 television season tackled at least one national public health policy per episode.

“Fictional TV shows reach a much wider audience that most news programs, and in many ways they can be even more powerful,” Kaiser Foundation veep Vicky Rideout said.

“Instead of bill numbers and budget figures, health issues are portrayed through the lives of characters the viewer cares about, often in life-or-death situations,” she said.

Discussed at conference

Results of the study were discussed during an ayem conference in Washington. Participants included “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” exec producer Neal Baer, M.D., and James Kearns, one of the writers of the hospital film “John Q.”

Survey did conclude that there were certain health policy issues ignored by the television biz. They included prescription drug coverage for the elderly — a hot issue in Washington these days — or what happens to the uninsured seeking medical help.

Shows covered in the study included episodes of “ER,” “Third Watch,” “Strong Medicine” and “Gideon’s Crossing.” Issues addressed included needle exchange programs for drug addicts, a woman misdiagnosed by her HMO doctor, and a woman turned away for breast cancer treatment because she couldn’t secure coverage from her HMO.

Shows mostly neutral

By and large, the study found that the TV shows in question generally didn’t take sides in addressing health policies. The major exception: HMOs, which were portrayed negatively across the board.

Earlier this month, the largest lobbying body for HMOs, the American Assn. of Health Plans, signed on with the William Morris Agency to burnish their image (Daily Variety, July 9).

The AAHP, which represents the top 1,000 health insurance plans in the country serving more than 170 million Americans, was quick to describe its retention of the percentery as being in line with the service of “bridge building” and not as an org coming to town “to pick apart scripts,” per prexy-CEO Karen Ignagni.

Ignagni said a “largely negative” image of HMOs in movies and TV shows can be changed with awareness of the good that provider networks do for patients.

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