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NBC Today show host Katie Couric is a veteran soldier in the battle for TV ratings, but a medical study says she's also a champion in the fight to increase colon cancer screenings.
When Couric had a colonoscopy live on national TV in March 2000, colonoscopy rates nationwide jumped more than 20% in the days and months that followed. The live colonoscopy was part of a weeklong series promoting colon cancer awareness.
Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the ''Katie Couric Effect.''
The study, in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine, finds that the higher rate of colonoscopies was sustained for nearly a year after the show. And the proportion of colonoscopies performed on women and people under age 50 rose, mirroring the audience demographics of NBC's Today.
The study shows that ''a celebrity spokesperson, even one without the condition he or she is promoting, can have a substantial and important impact on what the public does related to that disease,'' says study co-author Mark Fendrick, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.
''Considering that colorectal cancer screening in particular has been proven to improve health and extend longevity so well, for Ms. Couric to get a number of Americans over the hurdle to get tested is doubly gratifying,'' says Fendrick, who studies the cost-effectiveness of medical care.
Couric became a colonoscopy advocate after the death of her husband, Jay Monahan, 42, from colon cancer in 1998. She has since founded the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, part of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health in New York.
According to the National Cancer Institute, fewer than half of Americans are adequately screened for colon cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer deaths. More than 130,200 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year, and 56,300 will die from the disease.
Many patients don't find out that they have colon cancer until they have developed tumors large enough to cause symptoms such as blood in their stool, persistent abdominal cramps and changes in bowel habit. At that stage, treatment often fails to save their lives. If detected in the early stage -- a colonoscopy is the most thorough screening test available -- the disease can be cured in most cases.
In a colonoscopy, a patient is sedated and a flexible, lighted scope is inserted into the rectum and guided into the colon. The scope transmits an image of the inside of the colon, enabling the physician to see an early-stage polyp.
For the study, Fendrick and colleagues analyzed the number of colonoscopies performed each month by 400 endoscopists nationwide, from July 1998 (20 months before Couric's procedure) through December 2000 (nine months after). Results show that the number of colonoscopies rose from an average of 15 before Couric's exam to 18 afterward.
Fendrick notes that although people younger than 50 have been shown to benefit somewhat from a routine colonoscopy (and some get the disease and die from it at a young age), most medical experts say the population most likely to benefit is over age 50 or those with a family history of the disease.
''Perhaps next time a colon cancer screening campaign can be given during a show like Touched by an Angel so that the demographics are more in line with the people who are at increased risk,'' Fendrick says.
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