Kate Folb is in the middle of telling a story.
Inspired by the season finale of How to Get Away With Murder, which featured two protagonists getting tested for HIV, a sex educator with a large Twitter following went to visit his local clinic. The nurse looked him straight in the eyes and said, “You’re the fifth guy this morning, and we’ve only been open an hour.” This was, well, unusual.
“And that was one clinic in New York City. So imagine how that must have happened across the country!”
As the director of Hollywood Health & Society, a USC-affiliated, CDC-funded program that provides free expert consultation to the entertainment industry for stories on public health and climate change, Folb loves a hidden health message. And, yes, she has more than anecdotal evidence that this approach to public science education works. Data collected by Hollywood Health shows a strong correlation between single episode storylines and audience health-seeking behaviors. Folb is starting conversations in living rooms across the country, trojan horsing her way into peoples’ homes in the hopes of making all those Nielsen families healthier.
In an interview with INVERSE, Folb discussed using TV as an educational tool, the motivations of the entertainment industry, and a phenomenon called “transformation”.
Is Hollywood Health and Society trying to fact-check the entertainment industry?
It’s not so much about correcting misconceptions as it is serving as a scientific and medical and health resource to writers and producers and storytellers of the entertainment industry. We’re not an advocacy group, so we’re not out pushing an agenda except the agenda of the facts, the research, and the data, and the truth. The science.
What kind of entertainment are you involved in?
Basically every type of entertainment programming — just not hard news. And, if they call us, we’ll help them. We even work with feature films, but that’s a little bit of a different process because they sometimes are in the works for so much longer. We recently took an A-list actor who’s going to be portraying a very mentally unstable criminal to tour the mental health ward in the LA county jail. He actually wanted to spend the night there, but we couldn’t do that.
What kind of work might you do on a show?
If a writer is doing a storyline about a character who has leukemia, and they want to know and understand the whole experience of a leukemia patient — how they would be diagnosed, what the treatments would be, what language the doctor would use — they can come to us, and we will either provide them with the information; connect them with a medical, health, or scientific expert to talk on the phone; or even bring them into the writer’s room to give them a deeper dive into the subject matter.
Do the people behind these movies and shows really care about scientific accuracy?
Creators may or may not be interested in providing accurate public health information to their viewers, but they are interested in keeping their viewers engaged. When we watch something, and we think, “That doesn’t feel right,” it immediately takes us out the story. The industry knows that. It behooves them to have their storylines, when it comes to science or medicine, to be as accurate as possible. The added benefit is that the general public is accessing accurate information. And we know from the research we conduct — and that others conduct — that viewers actually do learn a lot about health and medicine through their favorite television shows.
Why are audiences listening to these TV shows and not their doctors?
That’s a very good question. There’s actually an academic term for it. We call it ‘transformation.’ You know, when you’re watching a movie or you’re watching your favorite show, you’ve forgotten what’s going on around you because you’re really engrossed in the storyline.
You know when you watch a commercial, or a PSA, or even the news? There’s a defense mechanism in your brain that says, ‘They’re trying to teach me something.’ You have all these defenses. But when you’re transformed — and you’re on the same team as your favorite character or you’re rooting for them or you’re running through the jungle with them — all of those defenses are put aside, and so the information that’s being conveyed to you at that time sinks in a lot deeper and becomes part of your own personal narrative, to some degree.
What’s an example of a health storyline that’s had a very direct impact?
This woman had recently given birth, and she thought that the pain in her breast had to do with a clogged milk duct or breastfeeding. But she saw this episode of Grey’s Anatomy where the woman had the same issue. So she went to the doctor; said, ‘I have this lump. I saw this episode of Grey’s Anatomy’ and sure enough, she had this [cancerous] lump in her breast.
Hollywood is used as shorthand for the entertainment industry, but it isn’t the whole thing. Where else are you working?
We have projects in India to work with Bollywood and in Nollywood, too. We take a little bit of credit for helping stave off the Ebola crisis in Nigeria, because we quickly responded with PSAs and storylines and television shows that addressed handwashing and general actions people could take to prevent the spread of Ebola. And again, it doesn’t really have to be the main storyline of the show. If at any time you see a couple getting under the bed net to help prevent the spread of malaria, and you constantly see that in all the movies and the shows that you’re watching, it’s going to become normal behavior, and you’re going to go and do the same thing.
How do shows address climate change?
We’ve been doing our climate change initiative for about three years now, and it’s a different kind of an issue than health. Everybody has health, personally. Climate change is this big, vast thing that’s very hard to get your own head around. How do you tell stories about people with regard to climate change? A lot of the work that we’ve been doing in the past couple of years is just educating the entertainment industry on the issue and how it’s affecting people. We’re starting to see these storylines surface now that we understand it better and we’re seeing and hearing about the effects so much more.
Do climate change and health intersect?
What we’re trying to help the industry understand is that we’re seeing vector-borne illnesses in parts of the world that never had them before. We’re seeing Dengue fever in the United States. We’re seeing amoebas in lakes in Minnesota that could never develop there because it was too cold, but now it’s warm enough, and the amoeba are getting inside children’s brains. We’re starting to see health topics changed based on the climate.