Celebrity disclosures — such as actress Angelina Jolie’s 2013 announcement that she had undergone a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy after learning she had a genetic mutation — can dramatically influence online information-seeking, which may prompt more people to seek screening and treatment, according to a new study co-authored by a BU School of Public Health researcher.
The study, published in the journal Genetics in Medicine, found huge spikes in Internet traffic on selected National Cancer Institute (NCI) sites in the immediate aftermath of Jolie’s May 14 disclosure in The New York Times. Among breast cancer resources available to the public, the NCI’s Preventive Mastectomy fact sheet saw the largest increase, with 69,000 page views on May 14, a 795-fold increase compared to the number one week earlier (87). A genetic testing fact sheet had a 31-fold increase in views, while a breast reconstruction resource had an 11-fold increase.
The researchers also found a spike in online traffic for resources intended for health professionals, as well as a “spillover effect” on traffic to other NCI cancer genetics resources.
“The effect of a celebrity’s disclosure can be far-reaching and extend beyond the scope of the specific disease or procedure reported in the news,” they said.
Much of the Internet traffic was driven by links embedded in Jolie’s op-ed article and other news stories, the research team said. Daily traffic to the NCI’s fact sheets remained elevated for about six weeks, gradually returning to normal levels towards the end of June.
Catharine Wang, associate professor of community health sciences at BUSPH and a study co-author, said the study indicates that celebrity disclosures such as Jolie’s are key opportunities for genetics experts to communicate accurate and comprehensive information.
The research team suggests that genetics professionals be prepared to work with journalists when events such as a celebrity diagnosis draw attention to an inherited condition.
“Genetics professionals can capitalize on these disclosures to raise awareness, clarify misconceptions, and ensure easy access to accurate information,” Wang said.
Wang and her co-authors said their findings were consistent with previous observations of information-seeking behavior after celebrity health disclosures. A prior NCI study found a 400-percent increase in colon cancer inquiries to the Cancer Information Service after the 1985 announcement that a portion of President Ronald Reagan’s colon had been removed.
A decade later, researchers in the United Kingdom observed a 64 percent increase in breast cancer-related calls to the UK’s national cancer information service, after the death of Linda McCartney, wife of singer Paul McCartney, from breast cancer.
The new study suggests that health care providers were seeking more information about the kind of genetic testing that Jolie had – BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 testing – and may have referred more patients for counseling and testing. In fact, new research from the UK and Canada suggests that Jolie’s disclosure did result in increased referrals to genetic counseling and demand for BRCA testing, Wang said.
The study was led by Robin H. Juthe of the NCI’s Office of Communications and Education. Amber Zaharchuk, of iDox Solutions in Bethesda, Md., was a co-author.
Contributed by Lisa Chedekel