What Did Grey's Anatomy Teach You?

A popular television show increased public awareness of a sexual assault education and support resource.

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If you’re reading this article, health and medicine likely pique your interest. You may be a public health advocate, a practicing physician, or the extent of your medical training could be observing the doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital on Grey’s Anatomy.  Of course watching television doesn’t equate to a formal degree, but studies have indicated that health-related storylines in media offer health education, prompt research into health topics, and encourage meaningful conversations.

On March 28, 2019, Grey’s Anatomy premiered an episode with a storyline about sexual assault entitled “Silent All These Years.” Actress Ellen Pompeo ended the episode with a public service announcement encouraging viewers impacted by sexual assault to seek help and contact the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline. Before and after the episode aired, a team led by Trevor Torgerson evaluated the public awareness of this sexual assault resource.  They did this by examining Tweets and Google searches including the words “rape”, “sexual assault”, “RAINN”, and “Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network”.

The Grey’s Anatomy episode encouraged public conversations about sexual assault and raised awareness for educational and supportive resources. On the day after “Silent All These Years” aired, Tweets tagging @RAINN increased by 1097% above what was projected for a usual day; tweets mentioning the hotline increased by 1955%. Google inquiries including the term RAINN were 41% higher than expected, and telephone calls to RAINN’s hotline also increased by 43% in the 48 hours after the episode premiered.

The CDC encourages writers, directors and producers to follow their sexual violence media guide as a tool to help educate viewers, because social behaviors and perspectives are so heavily influenced by entertainment media. The Torgerson team believes the entertainment industry could be a important public health platform pairing health storylines with awareness of nonprofit health organizations such as RAINN.

Watching health dramas will not make you a doctor, but you could learn something that may help save a life.

Databyte via Torgerson T, Khojasteh J, Vassar M. Public Awareness for a Sexual Assault Hotline Following a Grey’s Anatomy Episode. JAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(3):456–458.