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Reality TV: A Medical Mixed Bag

Medical-related Reality TV shows are a mixed bag when it comes to conveying health messages to the public.

That was the conclusion of a study released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation for a forum it held in Washington Wednesday on reality TV and its responsibility to convey accurate health information.

The shows surveyed were ones that deal with various health issues, including The Biggest Loser (NBC), Honey, We're Killing the Kids (The Learning Channel), ABC's Extreme Makeover (the person, not the home, edition), Plastic Surgery: Before and After (Discovery Health) and Weighing In (Food Network).

The study found that on the plus side, the shows can bring attention to major health issues like smoking or obesity, spotlight people with less-common conditions, generate compassion for suffering, or provide education about medical procedures.

On the downside, they can provide inaccurate information by, for example, glamorizing multiple plastic surgeries or too-rapid weight loss. The study, by a pair of professors from Lewis & Clark College and American University, also suggested that the shows offer the potential for "stealth marketing by pharmaceutical companies and others placing messages in programming and on related Web sites."

Then there is the double-edged scalpel of the almost universally positive portrayal of doctors on the shows. On the one hand, the study concludes, it may result in passive patients who don't take an active role in their own care. On the other, research suggests health care improves with faith in the doctor.

"[T]his may be an important aspect of reality television to consider in the future," the study says.