SC CTSI Turns to Popular Television Drama to Educate the Public about Clinical Research

Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC helped shape a storyline about clinical research for the Grey's Anatomy TV series.

Paul Karon — March 30, 2018

A new initiative led by the SC CTSI’s Community Engagement Core and Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S)—an organization based at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that aims to boost minority involvement in clinical research—has scored big successes on the small screen.

Credit: Disney–ABC

Through the initiative, investigators from the Keck School of Medicine of USC were paired with producers and writers of the long-running ABC television medical drama, Grey's Anatomy. The investigators provided advice and insight about breast cancer research for a storyline that spanned three episodes of the popular show. In briefings arranged by HH&S, Keck investigators Maria Nelson, MD, and Darcy Spicer, MD, advised the screenwriters about inflammatory breast cancer, treatment options, and the realities of clinical trials (a type of clinical research study).  

As a precursor to the briefings by Nelson and Spicer with the Grey's Anatomy producers, HH&S organized an event focused on clinical research.   Representatives from SC CTSI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and producers from television programs Grey's Anatomy and black-ish, were involved in the event held at CHLA, titled “Clinical Trials So White: When Life-Saving Research Leaves People of Color Behind.” A panel discussion with these representatives spotlighted the need to increase public engagement, including minority communities, in clinical research.

For a variety of reasons, minorities have long been underrepresented in clinical research for decades, which investigators say has contributed to poorer health outcomes for people of color and other minorities. The SC CTSI's Community Engagement Core works to eliminate health disparities between populations, and to improve health outcomes of minority communities. 

"We want to harness the power of entertainment to educate and encourage health and well-being for all," said Michele Kipke, PhD, Co-Director of SC CTSI and Vice Chair of Research at CHLA. "Television has the power to reach millions of people, and we in the research community are grateful to partner with talented screenwriters and producers who can deliver health information through engaging and relevant stories." 

SC CTSI leaders also point out that recruiting participants for clinical research studies can be among the most difficult aspects of the research process. Communities of color are often fearful of participating in research, and distrust the research process. As a result, many studies fail to recruit a diverse pool of participants.

“One of the most important aspects of the research process is engaging large and diverse populations,” said Kipke. “The more we know about these populations, the better equipped we are as researchers to develop interventions and treatments that benefit everyone.”

The Grey's Anatomy storyline about breast cancer research won a 2017 Sentinel Award in the Drama category. The awards are presented by the HH&S and the CDC to recognize exemplary television storylines that inform, educate and motivate viewers to make choices for healthier and safer lives. 

Written by Paul Karon

NIH Funding Acknowledgment: Important - All publications resulting from the utilization of SC CTSI resources are required to credit the SC CTSI grant by including the NIH funding acknowledgment and must comply with the NIH Public Access Policy.