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Healthcare and the media: the Jade Goody effect

The life of Jade Goody has been played out under the media spotlight and she plans her journey’s end to be widely reported. But will it really make a difference to the numbers of women attending for cervical screening?

Marilyn Eveleigh
Consultant Editor

The media is a powerful machine, and the Goody message is stark – cervical cancer can kill you. In 2007, 756 women died from the disease; 413 were between 25 and 64 years old. The national fallout message is clear – cytology screening for early detection can reduce the risk.

The reaction to a recent Nursing in Practice blog (www.nursinginpractice.com) indicated readers were sympathetic to her short life and saddened by her painful demise, and none condemned the public portrayal of her death.

What health practitioners will celebrate is the fantastic public health campaign, fuelled by Jade's story, encouraging the uptake of cervical cytology testing.   

The NHS has spent the last 20 years using a formal programme of national call-ups, recalls and informed opt-outs, trying to get maximum uptake. In 1998, there was an 82.5% uptake, but by 2007 it had dropped to 79% of the eligible population.

The Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) has added a financial impetus for GPs to encourage women to attend, but it has not improved significantly. Nationally, of 401 million women invited in 2007, only 317 million attended for cytology testing.
Family planning and sexual health services staff, midwives, practice nurses and health promotion campaigns keep the subject very high profile. Not one of us has succeeded as well as Jade.   

Anecdotally, practices around the country report that since the news broke that Jade was dying of cervical cancer, there has been a measurable increase in women requesting their cytology test; some women are too young for the programme and others have not had one for many years, having ignored their reminders and common sense.  

It is good news for the cytology screening programme and for those who will now enter screening. We are likely to see an increase in the national uptake both for the cytology test and for the HPV vaccine programme for teenage girls. It will be a silver lining to the sad loss of this vibrant young woman.

There is certainly a buzzing current debate about cervical cancer at all levels of society, be it in families, schools, healthcare establishments, internet chat rooms and the government. It is about screening – but it is highlighted by the dying.

Yet, many women have died from this same disease without such attention and wide interest. This time, the difference is the media presence. It gives us continual reports that are difficult to ignore, making compelling reading/viewing and Jade a household name. She has wanted and courted this where others did not.   

Like it or not, the media and celebrities are a fantastic source for raising profiles around health, lifestyle and disease, encouraging political and ethical debate about the services the NHS can offer.
In the last few weeks, the author Terry Pratchett has challenged the care of those with Alzheimer's disease, John Suchet, the broadcaster, has highlighted dementia, DJ Bob Harris shared his treatment of prostate cancer and Esther Rantzen has explored the difficulties involved in planning your own death.  

High profiles do draw media attention, but the issues encourage the population to reflect upon our own health, needs and wellbeing.

It was the media that stimulated nursing, as well as other professions, to review the definition and role of prayer and spiritual support in our care of patients. Standards of care, meeting public expectations and value for money are all challenges and goals we work with every day. Personal complaints and long-term frustrations on an individual basis may get an apology but don't change the NHS. The media calls for public accountability and it gets change.

Long live the media? Well, in my experience it changes its focus very quickly. I do not mean to sound harsh, but Jade Goody will be past news after her death, and the opportunity for highlighting cytology testing will have waned. There will be another, equally important issue that gets attention. As professionals, we need to seize the moment and build on the media mood, proactively raising the subject while it is uppermost in the minds of the public.
 
And when she is gone I don't think Jade Goody will mind if we use her name to encourage others to minimise their risk of cervical cancer. In fact, having enjoyed her celebrity status for her short life, I think she'd be pleased she was remembered.