Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 12:33 UK

Medical TV 'feeds health fears'

Scene from Casualty
Could watching hospital drama damage your health?

A taste for television hospital drama might make you more fearful about your own health, say psychologists.

Belgian researchers said the tragedies and medical horrors played out on ER, Casualty and Holby City may have a subliminal influence.

They quizzed 1,300 teenagers about their viewing habits, and found worries increased among those watching more medical drama.

A UK expert said fretting about illness was particularly common in teenagers.

The findings revealed that exposure to television images of medical characters was strongly associated with fear of illness
Dr Jan Van Mierlo
Hasselt University

The three year research project was presented to a British Psychological Society meeting in Bath on Wednesday.

The level of health fear measured in the teenagers grew by as much as 10% after a diet of hospital programmes, and girls appeared to be more affected than boys.

Even hospital documentary programmes, and news reports about health, were implicated.

Dr Jan Van Mierlo, from Hasselt University, said that further research was needed into the long-term impact of television.

"The findings revealed that exposure to television images of medical characters was strongly associated with fear of illness.

"Specifically, fear of illness increased with age and girls were more afraid of illness than boys.

"Future research should examine the long-term impact of specific types of medical TV programme on fear of illness, such as medical documentaries, reality programmes and hospital dramas as these could potentially be doing as much harm as good.

"It's a subliminal relationship, something you take away from these programmes."

Protecting the young

Medical dramas have been praised in the past for helping to draw attention to little-known conditions - but also attracted flak for their "unrealistic" depictions of heart attacks and the success of resuscitation.

They remain a popular part of the schedules - the BBC's "Casualty" attracts an average of seven million viewers per week.

Dr Cynthia McVey, Head of Psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University, said that teenagers might be vulnerable to the storylines and imagery in medical programmes.

She said: "We do still try to protect our children from the idea of illness and death, and if they see a lot of programmes where grannies, mothers and aunties are dying, this may affect them.

"Teenagers do tend to be particularly self-obsessed, perhaps because of the changes in their bodies, so might be prone to these worries."

However, she added: "There is still the possibility that teenagers with an existing morbid fascination towards these themes might be drawn to watch medical dramas, so it does not necessarily prove that the programmes have caused the problem."


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