The deaths of well-known people offer an opportunity to educate the general public about disease detection and prevention, a new study suggests.
Researchers surveyed 1 400 American men and women after Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011 and learned that more than one-third of them sought information about his cause of death or information about cancer in general soon after his death was reported.
About 7% of the respondents said they looked specifically for information about pancreatic cancer. That may seem low, but applied to the US population as a whole it would work out to more than 2 million people, the Indiana University team said.
Large racial disparities
"In the medical community, there has been a big push to try to educate the public about the nuances of cancer," lead author Jessica Gall Myrick, an assistant professor in the university's school of journalism, said in a university news release.
Cancer is "not just one disease; it's a lot of different diseases that happen to share the same label," she explained. "Celebrity announcements or deaths related to cancer are a rare opportunity for public health advocates to explain the differences between cancers, and how to prevent or detect them, to a public that is otherwise not paying much attention to these details."
The study authors were surprised to discover that racial minorities and people with lower levels of education were more likely to identify with Jobs and to seek information about pancreatic cancer after his death.
"Because there are large racial disparities in the incidence of many cancers, much focus is on such populations. Unfortunately, the population of individuals who may need cancer education the most often seek out cancer information the least – especially particular low-income and racial minority populations for whom cancer is more prevalent," the researchers wrote.
Educating the public
"This makes our results fairly surprising, and it suggests that in certain contexts, cancer prevention, detection and communication efforts directed toward disparity populations may find an approach that uses relevant public figures and celebrities as useful," the study authors concluded.
More than 50% of the study participants learned about Jobs' death through the internet or social media, which suggests that health educators could use these avenues to provide accurate information about diseases, the researchers said.
They added that reports in popular media about the health problems of famous people offer opportunities to inform the public about disease risk and prevention.
"More people will see a story about Steve Jobs' or Patrick Swayze's battles with pancreatic cancer in People magazine than will read a long, scientific piece on the disease in the New York Times," Gall Myrick said. "Health communicators need to act quickly to educate the public when interest and motivation are at their peak so that more lives can be saved."
The study was published online in the Journal of Health Communication.