What Hollywood Taught (Or Didn’t Teach) Us About Disease This Year

By Jamie Wells, M.D. — Dec 27, 2017
Given their substantial platform, Hollywood celebrities possess a unique ability to do tremendous good. Unfortunately, with that megaphone comes immense responsibility. Let’s take a look back at Tinseltown in 2017, and see what we've learned. The good, the bad and the indifferent.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Those in Hollywood are in a unique position to do tremendous good given their substantial platform. Unfortunately, with that megaphone comes immense responsibility. While many take that very seriously and share meaningful messages that can spread awareness about disease and its prevention, the speed of the news cycle and the endless modes of social media connection can disseminate misinformation in an instant-- with a global reach.

So, let’s take a look back this year at what we learned from Tinseltown--good, bad and indifferent.


Health Outreach

Jack Black and Ed Sheeran are among those who had the right idea because their efforts stemmed from an authentic and caring place.   

A video of actor and musician Jack Black visiting children admitted to Children's Hospital Los Angeles was viewed by over a million people. He brought joy and inspiration to those with struggles most people cannot possibly imagine. Don't underestimate the power of that message. It can effect change. It can inspire profound discovery, medical advancement, and in both the short and long term assuaging of suffering. (See the full article here).

Ed Sheeran consistently promoted public health and was a patient advocate. The musician not only created unforgettable moments for several children battling severe diseases and their families, but he also utilized his social media and other platforms to showcase much needed attention on Batten Disease and Rett Syndrome. It also appears he called and sang to a young woman just before her death. She had Cystic Fibrosis-- another rare, genetic disorder that prompts thick mucus to accumulate in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. (See here).

I appeared on Al Jazeera TV with two extraordinary young women who have Sickle Cell Anemia as part of my #GetWells effort to get high-profile attention for diseases that are devastating but don't get a lot of press. People with sickle cell disease feel theirs is a silent disease without a visible champion. Famous people can be a warrior for them. Michael J. Fox has raised over $700 million for Parkinson's Disease research. Boomer Esiason has been a key advocate for Cystic Fibrosis. Scott Baio and his wife created a foundation to get more standard newborn screens consistent in all states. President Donald Trump talking Pompe Disease at his address to the joint session of Congress introduced it for the first time to much of the public (see Did Pompe Disease Get A New Champion In President Trump? or Pompe Disease, Newborn Screening And Inborn Errors Of Metabolism).


Some missteps…

Celebrities are in a wonderful, privileged position. They can shine a spotlight on injustices and rare diseases that otherwise would garner little attention. They can significantly move the needle in shifting resources and bringing focus onto so many deserving issues in the medical realm.

  • It is a powerful thing that well-known people are so engaged and desire to use their voice. But you can be against something political without conflating the issue which actress Jessica Chastain did when she tweeted an untruth about the medical profession in the United States due to her outrage over gun violence. When you have nearly 600,000 twitter followers, the damage is done even if you inevitably delete your tweet. Which she did. Making inaccurate statements about medical testing does not advance any gun control argument and serves to do potential harm. (See full article here).

  • Recognizing the hazards of polypharmacy that are somewhat glorified on the Real Housewives franchise, I do applaud Bravo TV's Andy Cohen for re-tweeting my articles on the dangers of mixing substances, drug misuse and abuse. But, a step further of even adding a written warning or disclaimer to the episodes would best serve society given the state of overdose deaths and adverse effects of driving intoxicated or impaired. (see full article here).

  • 'Saturday Night Live' Skit Mocks Infertility -- Saturday Night Live (SNL) and comedy, in general, walks a fine line between finding the humor in the absurdities of life and crossing a boundary of mocking situations that perpetuate unfortunate stigmas. One such sketch from the May 20th line-up hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the seemingly acceptable response to it reminded me how vital it is to renew a conversation about the struggles and deeply personal turmoil of those enduring infertility. (See here).

Then, there are the mixed messages to wrong information spread by the films themselves or news organizations in an effort to support a more creative narrative or be first, review these articles to get certain erroneous concepts clarified (click on the blue links):


Disease Awareness

To those who openly discussed their medical problems with the world, I have much gratitude. It is a difficult and personal decision, but one that truly impacts and helps others.

Here are a few champions who shared their story:

  • Jimmy Kimmel Shares Newborn Son's Heartfelt Health Crisis - I Share What Was Involved
    • To understand the timeline for the congenital heart disease he addresses and its implications, review here
  • Shannen Doherty Reveals Unspoken Truth About A Cancer Diagnosis
    • Actress Shannen Doherty revealed in an Instagram message that she is in remission from breast cancer. In it, she eloquently articulated a very harsh reality for cancer patients about what remission does and does not mean. To learn more, read here.
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus Alerts Public She Has Breast Cancer
  • Sean Hayes: What Happened In 'Will & Grace' Star's Recent Medical Crisis
    • Review here to learn more about spontaneous gastrointestinal perforation.
  • 'Drugged Driving' Not Just Tiger Woods' Issue
    • To review the incident and the dangers of drugged driving, read here. To appreciate that Polypharmacy Problems Go Beyond Tiger Woods, read here
  • Broadway's 'Dear Evan Hansen' Captures More Than Teen Angst And Tony Awards
    • To understand how powerful this theater production is in describing addiction, developmental life stages especially adolescence, depression, anxiety, mental health and more, read here.
  • Selena Gomez Knows All Too Well About Lupus And Kidney Disease 
    • To learn about her story and Lupus, in general, review here.


What we learned about certain conditions through death of prominent figures (click on blue links)...

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