Medical T.V. Is Bad for Your Health

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Despite our culture’s “problematic” relationship with personal health (yes, I’m straining to be this diplomatic), we sure do like our medical T.V. There’s the news of course, the doctor talk shows, and the dramas: House, HawthoRNe, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice… (I have no doubt I’m missing some.) It’s one of those head scratchers — kind of like our culture’s current penchant for food T.V even though the average American spends less time cooking than ever these days. When it comes to the news, they make anything and everything sound like an imminent emergency. (Swine flu, anyone?) As for the dramas, there are the good looking people, romantic plotlines, feverish action, and tear-jerking narratives. More to the point, however, you have bizarre assortments of random medical oddities, the suspense leading up to the eventual diagnoses, and the inevitable drama surrounding characters’ medical treatments and tragedies. It’s enough to pique anyone’s curiosity, but some interesting research shows that we’re getting more than we bargained for from our entertainment.

In a recently published study, a University of Rhode Island professor shares the results of a survey that measured television viewing, health anxiety and life satisfaction. (Hint: this doesn’t end well.) The subjects were 274 students, ages 18—31, from the University of Alabama’s College of Communications. The researchers didn’t share the purpose of the study with survey participants. Study results showed a connection between television watching and an amplified perception of health risks. Not only did television viewing increase viewers’ belief in the likelihood of those health risks; it actually decreased viewers’ sense of “self-efficacy in maintaining personal health.” The study further indicated a related decrease in life satisfaction.

So, all this “informative” and entertainment programming ends up making us more concerned for our health and less convinced we can do anything about it. Isn’t that rich? I’ve said for years that we worry about the wrong things. We go into a full-blown panic over swine flu but simply keep on keepin’ on when it comes to the real health threats in our country: chronic lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Is it the media’s preoccupation with the strange and novel? Is it mere desensitization after hearing the standard health messages so many times? Is it those infernal pharma commercials? As the study author noted, the age group she surveyed is the most likely to feel healthy. “I suspect that if I surveyed a more general population the dissatisfaction would be even higher,” she said.

What exactly is going on here?

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