Study: Katie Couric wakes up America on colonoscopy screening

May 03, 2002

U-M study demonstrates the effect that celebrity spokespeople can have on public behavior.

ATLANTA - She's known as the perky co-host of NBC's "Today Show", and millions of Americans wake up to her every morning. And each morning, Katie Couric's faithful viewers depend on her to not only deliver the news but also to keep them informed on the latest in home life, fashion sense, and health care. So it's no surprise when Katie does something, much of America does too.

Evidence of this was obvious in March of 2000, when Couric underwent a live, on-air colonoscopy on the "Today Show", two years after the tragic death of her husband Jay Monahan from colon cancer at age 42. This was the cornerstone of a week-long series the show ran promoting colon cancer awareness and endorsing colorectal cancer screening.

In the months following the broadcast, interest in colon cancer prevention increased dramatically, but the actual effect on colon cancer screening was not quantified. Today, researchers from the University of Michigan Health System at the Society of General Internal Medicine meeting in Atlanta reported that Couric's campaign did have a substantial effect on the number of cancer screening tests. They call this finding the "Couric Effect".

"Our study found Ms. Couric's campaign resulted in a substantial increase in colonoscopies performed across the country," says Mark Fendrick, M.D., senior author on the paper and co-director of the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, Cost Effectiveness Studies or CHOICES at UMHS. "Not only did Ms. Couric's television campaign have an immediate impact, but the significant increase in screening rates remained long after the broadcast."

Using a population-based observational study, the U-M researchers examined colonoscopy rates drawn from a database of 400 endoscopists nationwide, as well as rates from a Midwestern managed care organization from July 1998 (89 weeks before Ms. Couric's procedure) through December 2000 (40 weeks after). Peter Cram, M.D., lead author on the study and an internal medicine lecturer at UMHS, says the results were striking.

"Our study shows the number of colonoscopies increased by 19 percent, and was sustained for 40 weeks," says Cram. "Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among Americans. It is important to point out that a majority of these deaths can be prevented if people underwent the recommended screening. So the fact that Ms. Couric's campaign demonstrated nearly a 20 percent increase in the number of screenings is an exciting finding."

The study also revealed that significantly more women and younger individuals underwent colonoscopy following Ms. Couric's campaign than before, a finding consistent with the demographics of the "Today Show" viewers, who are 60 percent female with a median age of 47.5.

Fendrick says this study suggests a celebrity spokesperson - even one who doesn't suffer from the disease they are promoting - can have a dramatic impact on public behavior related to that disease. Although Fendrick views Couric's campaign as a tremendous success, he says there are many more people at risk for colon cancer that still should undergo colon cancer screening.

"There's no question Ms. Couric had a direct impact on the increase in colonoscopy screenings across the country," Fendrick says. "Despite the overwhelming evidence that colon cancer screening saves lives, half of Americans who could benefit from screening are not getting it. We need more celebrity spokespeople like Katie Couric to help get the word out."
The other authors on the study are Sandeep Vijan, M.D., M.S., John Inadomi, M.D., Mark E. Cowen, M.D., S.M., Daniel Carpenter, Ph.D., all from UMHS.

University of Michigan Health System

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