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Celebrity spokespersons can have a substantial impact on cancer screening rates

Celebrity spokespersons are often used to market medications and other health-related products to the public. These spokespersons can also prompt people to get screened for cancer, concludes a new study. It found that a televised colon cancer awareness campaign by Katie Couric was temporally associated with an increase in colonoscopy use.

Following the tragic death of her 42-year-old husband from colon cancer, the NBC anchor-person underwent a live, on-air colonoscopy on the Today Show. This event was the cornerstone of a week-long series promoting colon cancer awareness and endorsing colorectal cancer screening. During colonoscopy, which is recommended every 10 years starting at age 50, a flexible tube with a light and camera on the end is inserted into the rectum to permit visualization of the entire colon.

Peter Cram, M.D., M.B.A., of the University of Michigan School of Medicine, and colleagues compared colonoscopy use rates before and after Ms. Couric's televised series using two databases: one containing data on 95,000 colonoscopies performed by a voluntary consortium of 400 endoscopists from July 1998 to December 2000, and one containing data on colonoscopies received by 44,000 adult members of a managed care organization. The number of colonoscopies performed per consortium physician per month after Ms. Couric's campaign increased significantly from 15 before the campaign to 18 afterwards. Among managed care patients, colonoscopy use increased from 1.3 procedures per 1,000 members per month before the program to 1.9 procedures after the program.

A significantly higher post-campaign colonoscopy rate was sustained for 9 months after the campaign (1.3 per 1,000 members in the 14 months prior to the campaign versus 1.8 in the 9 months afterwards). This "Couric effect" did not extend to other cancer screening activities. For example, rates of prostate-specific antigen screening for prostate cancer and mammography testing for breast cancer did not increase among managed care members in the 9 months after the program. This study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (National Research Service Award training grant HS00053).

See "The impact of a celebrity promotional campaign on the use of colon cancer screening," by Dr. Cram, Mark Fendrick, M.D., John Inadomi, M.D., and others, in the July 14, 2003, Archives of Internal Medicine 163, pp. 1601-1605.

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