KUHF Conversations: Sandra de Castro Buffington

When public health advocates want to broadcast an important message about a disease or danger, they're competing for our attention with TV, movies, and the internet. But a unique program at the University of Southern California tries to work with the entertainment industry, by embedding accurate health messages inside television scripts. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel spoke with Sandra de Castro Buffington, the director of the university's "Hollywood Health and Society" program.
What is the Hollywood health and society program?

“Hollywood Health and Society serves as a bridge between the entertainment industry and the public health community. And we work literally seven days a week providing health content and medical experts to writers and producers of TV shows.”

Tell me an example of a health-related storyline from TV and its impact?

“We have so many but I’ll talk about a minor storyline on The Bold and the Beautiful. Tony the lead character learns in one episode that he’s HIV positive, in the next episode he tells Kristin his fiancé this very difficult news and they later get married and adopt a child. So we asked the network to allow us to air a public service announcement at two dramatic plot points in the story. This resulted in 5,313 calls in a single day to the CDC AIDS hotline number, the highest peak in callers all year.”

And there are lots of studies that you shared with me documenting that type of reaction. What’s the overall take-away for health educators?

“Well, we know that narratives and stories are really the most powerful way to increase knowledge, change attitudes and shape behaviors. So Hollywood, Health and Society uses a trans-media approach, so when we have a significant storyline about health on television, what we do is work with the show to put web links to credible sources of health information on the show’s website. We also help the networks develop a Facebook page.”

So your model is rather than compete with television you’re going to work with the industry to get a public health message out there.

“That’s exactly right, Carrie, we don’t want anybody depending on television as their primary source of health information but we know from research that nearly two-thirds of regular viewers of TV report learning something new about a disease, or how to prevent it, from TV shows, and nearly one-third of those viewers take action on what they’ve learned. That means if the health content is accurate, it’s a huge service, but if it’s inaccurate it can be a disservice.”

So TV writers can call your programs and do a fact-check on their scripts. But do you also tell the writers what health topics to write about?

“We never, ever tell them what story to write, and we don’t even suggest a storyline. That’s not our job. What we do is take case studies and real stories of real people to inspire them. And once we capture their imagination, then we provide a lot of serious health content and scientific information.”

What does this say about the traditional way of getting a public health message out there, the so-called PSA, the public service announcement?

“In that traditional public health campaign, you have a certain amount of funding, some key messages, and you have to pay for airtime to get it out there, which means it is going to be limited in duration and limited in reach. Because there’s not enough money in the world, to buy the airtime to reach the enormous populations we have to reach quickly. With the Hollywood Health and Society model, we don’t pay for content, we don’t push a single issue and we have no control over the end product. But even so, the partnership we’ve developed is very successful at getting this accurate information out there.

One of our studies showed that 10 percent of viewers of an episode of the show “Numbers,” actually said they signed up to become organ donors because of the show, that it motivated them to do that. So this is a very powerful approach, it works, we have measurable results to prove it. And we hope that more and more people will be encouraged to use entertainment as a way of reaching the public.”

That was Sandra de Castro Buffington of the University of Southern California. She’ll be speaking tonight at Rice University.
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...