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ER Visits Influenced By Celebrity Death

October 6, 2009

According to research presented Monday at the American College of Emergency Physicians’ annual meeting in Boston, publicity surrounding the death of actress Natasha Richardson after a head injury triggered a 73% increase in emergency room visits for head trauma.

Brian Walsh and colleagues at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey studied a number of patients seen by doctors in 19 urban, suburban, and rural emergency rooms in New York and New Jersey in March 2009.  Over 2,500 of about 87,000 visits were for head trauma that month.

The team then compared the daily visits for head injury in the 10 days before and after March 18, which is the day Richardson died because of a skiing accident.

Walsh told Reuters Health that although the visits for head trauma increased significantly after March 18, only “a very small proportion of patients–in the two to three percent range–really had anything to worry about.”

The number of visits returned to the normal range by March 31.

“The study quantified what we already knew: when the media make people more aware of a disease process, they get scared and come to the emergency room,” Walsh said. In this case, “the media played up the ‘sudden death syndrome’ aspect–the idea that you can have a minor fall, look great afterwards, and suddenly die.”

He explained that although people sometimes look all right temporarily after this type of injury, generally “they will pass out or have a period of confusion before deteriorating.”

Walsh said that media campaigns increase knowledge by encouraging people to go to an emergency room if they show sins of a stroke or heart attack, and it can be helpful.  “But in this case, there was some exaggeration about how minor the fall was, and how perfect she looked afterwards.”

“It’s similar to what’s going on now with swine flu,” Walsh observed. “Every time someone dies, we get a bump in visits. But most people aren’t dying from it, and everyone is paranoid. The extra knowledge is making them scared.”

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