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Colorectal Cancer Screening Gets "The Katie Couric Effect"

The Popular Morning Show Host Gets A Colonoscopy On Air

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Updated November 22, 2012

Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa may have coined a new catchphrase: “The Katie Couric Effect.” The phrase refers to the effect the popular daytime talk show host has had on the number of people undergoing a colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer.

A study published in the July 14, 2003 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine investigates the impact of Couric’s colorectal cancer awareness campaign. Couric is a co-host on the Today Show, the most-watched morning program of the 3 major US television networks. She became an advocate for colorectal cancer screening after losing her husband, 42-year old lawyer Jay Monahan, to the disease in 1998.

March of 2000 was the first National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month as declared by the US Senate. Colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of death from cancer in the United States, will cause 57,100 deaths this year, but only 53% of Americans over the age of 50 have been screened. When caught in its early stages, colorectal cancer is approximately 90% curable. The goal of screening is to find and remove abnormal growths (polyps) on the intestinal wall that are believed to be the precursors to cancer. Polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy, thereby eliminating the risk of turning into cancer.

To promote screening, Couric herself underwent a colonoscopy, which was profiled from prep to follow-up, on the Today Show. At the age of 43 years, Couric was not considered a candidate for screening based on either her age or the presence of other risk factors. Her willingness to undergo the test and explain every step along the way in front of a camera apparently had a significant effect on the public. It appears that some people were spurred to visit a gastroenterologist and get screened for colorectal cancer.

In the study, researchers reviewed the number of colonoscopies performed by 400 gastroenterologists in 22 states. The number of tests during the 20 months previous to Couric’s televised colonoscopy was compared to the number of tests completed in the 9 months following. Researchers discovered that prior to the awareness campaign on the Today Show, gastroenterologists completed an average of 15 colonoscopies per month. After Couric’s televised test, the number rose to 18.1 per month. Other significant changes include an increase in the percentage of women (from 43.4% to 47.4%) and a decrease in the average age (60.8 years to 59.9 years) of persons undergoing colonoscopy. Researchers conclude that Couric had a significant effect on the public’s willingness to undergo preventive health care for colorectal cancer.

The effect of celebrities on public perception of health care has not been studied extensively, but the “Couric effect” has been noted before. In 1987, then First Lady Nancy Regan chose to undergo a modified radical mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy to treat her breast cancer. In the following 6 months, women undergoing surgery for breast cancer were also less likely to undergo lumpectomy surgery. After 6 months, the percentages of mastectomies to lumpectomies returned to the levels seen prior to Regan’s surgery. Regan’s choice was a controversial one, and sparked debate concerning possible over-treatment of breast cancer and the rights of women to make decisions regarding their healthcare.

The study concludes that celebrity involvement in health issues can have a significant effect, even if the celebrity does not suffer from the disease or condition they are publicizing. The authors also note that while celebrities may have the best of intentions, there is potential for harm if erroneous or unconfirmed information is passed along to the public.

Amber J. Tresca
About.com Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

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