A paper published in the Christmas edition of The BMJ asks why so many people follow medical advice from celebrities when so much of it is ill-informed and some of it is potentially harmful.
Researchers from McMaster University in Canada looked at how celebrities gain credibility as medical advisors and why the public can fall under their influence when making important health decisions. They analyzed economic, marketing, psychology and sociology studies from 1806 to the present day.
The researchers give several explanations for how celebrities gain credibility as medical advisors.
One explanation is “herding,” which is people’s natural tendency to make decisions based on what others have done in similar situations.
Another explanation is celebrities’ “halo effect” which, as the researchers say, gives celebrities a “cloak of generalized trustworthiness which extends well-beyond their industry or expertise.” Wanting to follow in their favorite celebrities’ footsteps, consumers ignore other information and instead imitate the celebrity’s health choices.
Celebrities also portray themselves as having an authentic connection to the product or behavior they are promoting. So are perceived as having greater credibility than their non-celebrity counterparts, despite having less medical knowledge and experience.
Any one remember the media frenzy way back in 2004 over Gwyneth’s spots? I can recall a few people coming into the clinic back then and asking if I did cupping. Somehow over time it even morphed into a secret beauty therapy.
It’s not just movie stars and people famous for being famous. As desperate as ageing celebrities are to hang on to their looks, sportspeople are to recover from injuries and maximise their performance. I’ve seen the flow on effect first hand working as a sports trainer when I was a student physiotherapist. I worked at a state based football club that had a number of players in and out of teams at the national level (SANFL and AFL for any fellow Aussies). The young, up and coming players at the SANFL club idolised the guys from the AFL clubs and would follow any bit of advice they gave. It was quite popular at the club to get the biggest and heaviest trainer (he was truly a mountain of a man) to take out his “magic wand”- a short length of broom handle with sports tape wrapped around one end for better grip, and apply brutal pressure to a “Piri” or “glut” “trigger point”.
When doctors become celebrities, the power to influence is increased by orders of magnitude. There was a lot of consternation about Shane Watson’s hamstring prior to the recent summer of cricket in Australia:
Shane Watson says hamstring injury is ‘not too bad’
A scan on a sore hamstring will determine if the all-rounder gets the all-clear for the Ashes opener at the Gabba starting on November 21 but he was optimistic on his return from India on Monday, describing his latest injury concern as “not too bad”.
He is expected to resume working closely with Australian team doctor Peter Brukner, the former head medico at Liverpool Football Club, in the lead-up to the first Test and says the highly respected sports physician’s techniques, including acupuncture, have been key to allowing him to overcome similar fitness hiccups this year.
“If it wasn’t for Doc Brukner and his techniques I wouldn’t have been able to play the consistent cricket that I have because the niggles I have had would have put me out for one or two weeks, whereas now I am able to manage it and play through them,” Watson said. “The techniques he has got like acupuncture, dry-needling to release the tension in my muscles . . . it’s part of my routine every day when I’m playing all the time. It has made a huge difference to my body.”
Anyone out there been asked to dry needle some tight hamstrings?
At it’s worst, it can lead to this.
But perhaps all is not lost, with the researchers in the original link offering some hope
The study says health professionals can counter celebrities’ negative influences by speaking to their patients about the validity of celebrity advice and cement themselves as sources of reputable health information. “We need to rethink and better understand where people obtain their health information and what makes them act upon it,” said Hoffman. “Understanding why people follow celebrities’ medical advice represents a good start.”
Anyone who has dealt with people in pain, people in real trouble, will know just how desperate they can be to find relief. As therapists or clinicians of any kind, we therefore have an enormous responsibility to be prepared with evidence- and science- based approaches, sound clinical reasoning, critical thinking and up to date knowledge to confidently counter celebrity endorsed woo, while having the empathy and humility to do it without ridicule, and gently when necessary.
But it’s hard work. I know for certain that I have lost numerous patients over the years to the “person up the street” who was all too happy to embrace the latest fad, shamelessly promote it with celebrity endorsement and then move on to the next thing when the shine and attention wore off.
As always, we’d love to hear your stories, successes and opportunities for learning in the comments below.
Elvis? It just struck me that the “Elvis Diet” never really took off.
– Tim Cocks
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