“When famous people like Angelina Jolie have preventive surgery for breast cancer, it will generate interest because celebrities seem to be above it all, but in fact, they are human just like the rest of us,” Dr. Kathie-Ann Joseph, assistant professor in NYU Langone Medical Center's department of surgery, said in an e-mail. “That has a powerful impact.”
However, these types of disclosures raise important questions about the impact of celebrity on how patients make decisions about their treatments for potentially fatal diseases or conditions.
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey who may be considering a run for president in 2016, recently made his own health disclosure, confirming this month that he had received gastric banding to reduce his weight.
“There's no question that stars influence clinical practice,” said Jeffrey Lerner, president and CEO of the ECRI Institute. “That's why drug companies will use a celebrity in a direct-to-consumer ad.”
There are numerous examples of celebrities, politicians and other public figures who have publicly addressed, disclosed or advocated for types of treatments. Some have been lauded for raising awareness of a certain disease or condition, while others have been criticized for encouraging patients to undergo unnecessary or inappropriate treatments.
Notably, Oprah Winfrey came under fire almost a decade ago for recommending whole-body scans even as the Food and Drug Administration urged caution because there was no scientific evidence proving the benefits of the screening.
But in the cases of Jolie and Christie, the disclosures focused less on promotion and more on the role of proactively addressing personal health issues.
“I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer,” Jolie wrote May 14. “It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.”
Christie, likewise, described his procedure as a personal choice. “It's not a career issue for me,” he said during a news conference. “It is a long-term health issue for me.”
Physicians say there are benefits and risks to the media hype surrounding celebrities and their healthcare choices, which can sharpen a patient's understanding of a particular procedure as well as boost interest among patients who may not meet the clinical criteria.
“I think it's very responsible and a good thing what people like Gov. Christie and Angelina Jolie did,” said Dr. Rumin Sorkhi, a bariatric surgeon who is affiliated with the Palomar Health system in San Diego County. “People look up to them and people learn from them.”