Celebrity Health Endorsements: How Angelina Jolie’s May 2013 Breast Cancer Op-Ed Cost Millions in Unnecessary Tests

Three years ago, Angelina Jolie announced in a New York Times op-ed that she’d had a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for mutations in the BRCA1 gene, which put her at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

The article went viral, and became a flashpoint in the debate about breast cancer risk and prevention. It also spurred researchers to study what impact Jolie’s decision might have on mastectomy rates and testing for the cancer-causing BRCA1 and 2 genetic mutations, as reported by Vox.com.

In the latest paper, published in the British Medical Journal, now known as The BMJ, researchers from Harvard looked at insurance data from nearly 10 million women before and after Jolie’s May 2013 editorial.

In the two weeks following the Jolie Op-Ed article, they found that BRCA testing rates shot up by 65 percent. But mastectomy rates remained unchanged in the months after that. If more women with the mutation, like Jolie, were being diagnosed, the researchers expected to find an increase in [mastectomies], one of the co-authors, Sunita Desai, explained.

The study suggests women may have followed Jolie into medical screening they didn’t need.

…[T]his looks like a case of celebrity-induced overtesting, the researchers wrote: “Celebrity announcements can reach a broad audience but may not effectively target the population that would benefit most from the test.”

Celebrity health endorsements, no matter how well-intentioned and carefully crafted, frequently lead to misunderstanding. But there are exceptions, says researcher and author Timothy Caulfield:

“Celebrities are most helpful in areas where the message is straightforward and simple — wear your seatbelt, don’t smoke, eat fruits and vegetables.” They are less instructive when the messages are complex, like communicating individual genetic risk information. So we should keep the Jolie case study in mind next time we hear a celebrity with a health message that’s more nuanced than “eat your broccoli.”

Learn more about the impact of celebrity health endorsements in Vox.com

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