The CDC now provides between $300,000 to $500,000 a year in funding, along with other sources. Hollywood, Health, and Society relies on a roster of experts around the nation, even bringing medical professionals into writers’ rooms and taking producers on field trips—including to the county morgue.
Recently, the center convened producers, writers, health experts, and patients to discuss the Affordable Care Act. They delved into topics including enrollment problems, obstacles to mental-health treatment and coverage for immigrant families, with the goal of “inspiring and informing” writers, Folb said.
“The arrival of Obamacare has meant that the [health] stories get a brand-new dimension,” said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, which oversees Hollywood, Health, and Society.
The health law has already made an appearance in both English and Spanish-language shows, including Two Broke Girls and Grey’s Anatomy.
“It was so fun to be able to do a story where we could put in the actual word Obamacare,” said Grey’s Anatomy story editor Meg Marinis, who frequently calls the organization with questions.
Hollywood, Health, and Society staff members acknowledge the stories on medical dramas can be obscure and unlikely. In the Grey’s Anatomy episode, for instance, a character came to the hospital with lingering stomach pain after getting insurance through the Affordable Care Act. When he arrived, the show’s doctors found an unusual condition: The man had absorbed his own twin at birth.
But dramatic scenarios like this also draw viewers, who may pick up some useful information along the way.
Television has tremendous reach and impact. In one Kaiser Family Foundation study, for instance, viewers’ knowledge that treatment could lower the risk of HIV transmission from mothers to their unborn children increased dramatically after watching a television show. The study also showed that people’s attitudes changed after the episode—the number of people who thought the pregnant, HIV-positive character was irresponsible decreased.
“Even a short mention can influence how people think about these things,” said Tina Hoff, senior vice president at the foundation, which has long partnered with television and other organizations on health storylines and has previously done research with the USC group.
Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Dr. Zoanne Clack, who is on the board of Hollywood, Health & Society, puts it another way. She said she used to see about 30 people during a 12-hour shift as an emergency-room physician, providing a limited window for health education. Through the show, however, she can reach as many as 15 million people a week.
Clack said she doesn’t want to bore viewers by preaching, so she tries to put “public health education messages into people’s heads without them even knowing it.”