When Steve Jobs died, an entire generation wedded to his products mourned his passing. Talk about him dominated the media for weeks. Spontaneous memorials popped up at Apple stores. Some cried.
Now researchers are saying there was a small silver lining to the news: "serendipitous" public health education.
News of celebrity illness or death can have a profound impact on the public. Ronald Reagan’s colon tumor resulted in more calls to the Cancer Information Service and increased used of early-detection tests, one study found. Mammography screening spiked when first lady Betty Ford had breast-cancer surgery. The most high-profile example is Magic Johnson’s announcement that he has HIV: Evidence shows HIV testing, condom use, and conversations about AIDS all rose in the wake of the news.
Such events are essentially sad-but-important opportunities for public health educators, who otherwise face much higher costs and barriers to capturing people’s attention. That's why researchers at Indiana University, the University of North Carolina, and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health decided to study the phenomenon in more detail after Steve Jobs died in October 2011.
Three weeks after Jobs died of pancreatic cancer at age 56, they sent emails to 4,000 employees of a large public university in the Southeast United States. Of the nearly 1,400 responses they received back, every single person had heard about Steve Jobs’s death, with almost everyone also correctly identifying pancreatic cancer as the cause from a list of five options. His death generated a lot of interest—half the respondents said they’d "sought out" more information about Steve Jobs’s death after hearing the news, and 74% reported having conversations about the general topic. For a smaller subset of people, they also learned more about his disease that killed him:
- 36% sought information about how Jobs died or about his disease.
- 17% had one or more discussions about pancreatic cancer.
- 7% sought out information specifically about pancreatic cancer.
"Although a figure of 7 percent may seem small, when considering the possible impact of such actions on a populationwide basis, the significance is clear," the researchers write in their study, doing some simple math. "For example, if 7 percent of the U.S. population sought out pancreatic cancer information, that would translate to more than 2 million individuals."
Writing in the Journal of Health Communication, the researchers call on the public health community to use these events to their advantage by quickly acting in the wake of a celebrity health issue to disseminate high-quality disease detection and prevention information in the news and on social media. Celebrity news events, they suggest, can be especially helpful in reaching racial minorities and other demographic groups that are often less likely to seek out health information. Researchers might also make appeals for funding for cancer research, they note.
"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," lead author Jessica Gall Myrick writes. "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."