Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: A Pandemic?

Ah, the movies. We laugh, we cry, we . . . wash our hands?

This weekend I took my family to see Contagion. This is classic Steven Soderbergh, featuring a star-studded ensemble cast you barely notice as they become instruments of plot versus character. Like most of Soderbergh films, a plot device becomes the main character, in this case a swiftly moving flu-like epidemic. While the film is termed a “thriller”, I found it more of a pseudo-docudrama of how key players in healthcare, such as the CDC, would deal with tracking down and treating a novel virus. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours in the context of clinical research, I was fascinated by the detailed explanations of epidemiological clues that would lead us to the “index patient” but halfway through the slow-moving flick, I found my mind wandering. 

Medicine and disease have long been a mainstay of Hollywood blockbusters — think The Fugitive, Extreme Measures, A Beautiful Mind, and Outbreak. Profitable? Yep. Enjoyable? Sure! The real question is how much do these films — a mix of fact and fiction — get into our collective psyche and influence how we make healthcare decisions? Can a movie like Contagion cause enough fear factor to finally get us all to wash our hands more often when even our own trusted physicians have failed to do so?

Not long ago, a major pharma company put out public-service-style advertising featuring the scientists in their R&D division talking about the years and dollars invested in bringing a new drug from concept to market. The scientists were heartfelt, the goal obvious: get consumers to take the leap from being pharmaceutical haters to believers that big pharma needs the revenues from marketed drugs to fund the development of new cures. 

It certainly is reasonable. I have seen firsthand the devastation on the face of a client that spent the last twenty years of life lovingly raising an investigational drug from its infancy only to see it fail in the phase III trial, just one baby step from approval. It’s like seeing your teenager go on a bender and crash the family car.
So, if these ads were just a blip on my radar when this is my living, how could they penetrate through the noise? How could this campaign create a mind shift for the average consumer from a belief that big pharma is the greedy enemy to one in which the industry is recognized for its benevolent aims?  
Despite being less than thrilling, Contagion will stay with me because at the same moment I was dissecting the film in my mind, I was also reaching over the popcorn to make sure my son and daughter were still sitting safely next to me.

While Contagion used fear as the vehicle to elicit this response, other health-related films, like My Sisters Keeper, use love and altruism. At either end of the spectrum the result is the same: a behavior change created by using human insights to tap into our most basic human needs. Perhaps we should take a page from Hollywood the next time we face our next big healthcare PR challenge?