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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
TV soaps' ails fuelling sickness
Image of Dot Cotton
EastEnder Dot Cotton's struggle with cancer struck a chord
Patients are mimicking the illnesses they see in their favourite TV soaps, doctors have said.

More than nine out of 10 GPs claimed to have seen patients reporting symptoms based on what they had seen on TV or read in newspapers and magazines.

Two-thirds of the 200 GPs surveyed by Norwich Union Healthcare said medical issues raised in this way were making their patients paranoid.

Many said patients had already decided on their diagnosis before being seen.


They said that media coverage of medical issues was encouraging patients to self-diagnose by seeking advice from friends and family before speaking to their GPs.

What the soaps do is highlight the important symptoms that people can ignore for quite a long time
Dr Ian Banks

Similarly, of 1,000 consumers surveyed, a third put talking to friends and family top of the list for giving them advice about what their symptoms might be down to, ahead of medical books and literature, NHS Direct and the internet.

Blanket coverage of MRSA and storylines such as EastEnder Dot Cotton's struggle with cancer are the types that are causing concern, said the researchers.

However, Dr Ian Banks, president of the Men's Health Forum, said he thought soap story lines had saved a lot of lives and could improve public awareness of health issues "far better" than government health agencies.

He said: "Men in particular tend to present late with symptoms, which means their chances of survival, especially with the more serious cancers, declines quite rapidly.

Programme producers have a responsibility to ensure they convey realistic messages about health issues
Pam Prentice of Developing Patient Partnerships

"What the soaps do is highlight the important symptoms that people can ignore for quite a long time."

He gave an example of a young man who visited his surgery seeking help after "seeing himself" in a Brookside storyline about a character who killed himself.

"As far as I am aware, that lad is still alive today," he told BBC News.

An EastEnders spokeswoman said writers and researchers were aware of the influence of the show and that they tried to make sure all the issues covered were as close to real life as possible.

Fear factor

Dr Doug Wright, author of the survey findings, said: "The media has a really beneficial role in raising awareness about significant healthcare issues and this should not be underestimated.

"However, we shouldn't let these issues scare us.

"Being aware of our bodies, noting any changes that occur and researching symptoms using the wealth of information available to us is always a good start, but if you have any real concerns your first stop must always be your GP."

Pam Prentice, joint chief executive of Developing Patient Partnerships, said: "These results may be bad news for GPs right now, but they show soaps' enormous potential for influencing people's health behaviour in a positive way.

"The problem lies in viewers understanding the likelihood of their symptoms being serious and not jumping to conclusions.

"This is where programme producers have a responsibility to ensure they convey realistic messages about health issues and where public health education campaigns in workplaces, in health services and in the media are key to ensuring that people can make sensible and informed judgements about their health."

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