When illness goes public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine

When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine, Dr. Barron H. Lerner explores how celebrity patients have influenced public attitudes toward diseases and their treatments by analyzing 12 case studies between 1938 and 1992 (see below). Dr. Lerner describes how celebrity cases can educate the public, create advocates for research and patient care on behalf of other people with the same disease, and have even influenced aspects of doctors’ professional training.

Dr. Lerner points out that sick celebrities are important to other sick people, in part, because we assume that celebrities have access to the best medical advice and care and other sick people would like to have the same opportunities. For instance, Lance Armstrong says that people wrote to him asking about everything he did and ate while fighting testicular cancer. Another example is that of actor Steve McQueen. During his battle with mesothelioma in the 1980s, there was a belief that he had extended his life by obtaining treatment not available in the U.S. — an early example of medical tourism. Following this news, thousands of cancer patients traveled to Mexico in search of similar treatments. A more recent example of this is the sad case of Farrah Fawcett who traveled repeatedly to a German cancer clinic to obtain unconventional treatments not available in the U.S.  Beyond wanting to have the same treatments that famous patients have, we also look to celebrities for hope and inspiration as we fight disease.

Case Study Year Disease or Condition
Lou Gehrig 1938 ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Jimmy Piersall 1952 Manic depression/Bipolar Disorder
Margaret Bourke-White 1959-1963 Parkinson’s Disease
John Foster Dulles 1956 Colon Cancer
Brian Piccolo 1969 Embryonal Cell Carcinoma*
Morris Abram 1973 AML – Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Steve McQueen 1979-1981 Mesothelioma
Rita Hayworth 1981 Alzheimer’s Disease
Barney Clark 1982-1983 Artificial Heart
Libby Zion 1984 Medical errors
Elizabeth Glaser, Arthur Ashe 1985, 1988
HIV/AIDS
Lorenzo Odone 1984-1992 ALD – Adrenoleukodystrophy

 

More about Dr. Barron Lerner

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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