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Grey’s Anatomy Raises Health Awareness

Episode With ‘Embedded’ Health Message Shifted Viewers’ Attitudes About HIV-Positive Mothers
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 19, 2008 -- Television has been called a "vast wasteland," but there is no denying the power of prime time.

Health educators slipped a message about HIV-positive mothers into a story line in the popular TV show Grey's Anatomy.

Then they tested whether viewers got that message.

Researchers from Kaiser Family Foundation, led by Victoria Rideout, met with Grey's Anatomy writers and staff.

One staff member was an ob-gyn who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.

The group also included a young woman, HIV positive since she was 19, who recently gave birth to a healthy baby with her HIV-negative husband.

The story line included a young HIV-positive woman who finds out she is pregnant and first demands an abortion, fearing she will pass the virus that causes AIDS to her child.

She learns that with proper treatment she has a 98% chance of delivering a baby who is HIV-free.

Randomly selected regular Grey's Anatomy watchers were questioned, testing their knowledge and attitudes about HIV-positive women giving birth.

Three surveys were given, one before the show aired in May 2008, a week after the show aired, and a follow-up six weeks later.

Here is one question viewers were asked:

"As far as you know, if a woman who is HIV positive becomes pregnant and receives the proper treatment, what is the chance that she will give birth to a healthy baby, not infected with HIV?

The answer? There is a more than 90% chance of having a healthy baby with the right treatment.

Here are the percentages of viewers who got that right:

  • Before the show aired, 15% answered correctly.
  • 61% knew it a week after seeing the show.
  • 45% retained that knowledge six weeks later.

The respondents were asked whether this next statement was true or false:

"If a woman who has HIV or AIDS becomes pregnant, there is nothing that can be done to prevent the virus from infecting the unborn baby."

  • A week before the episode aired, 53% knew the correct answer. (It's false.)
  • A week after the show aired, 76% knew the answer was false.
  • Six weeks after the program aired, 63% still knew the correct answer.

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