What Steve Jobs' Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.
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Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the 2007 All Things D conference. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the 2007 All Things D conference. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The late Steve Jobs will go down in history for many reasons—as the industry leader who built the world’s most valuable company, the most famous promoter of black turtlenecks, and the subject of not one but two biopics (so far).

Health communications researchers see another potential for his life and death to impact the general public, and it's associated with his battle with pancreatic cancer.

In a study dedicated to the memory of Jobs and published this month in the Journal of Health Communication, researchers found that the event of Jobs’ death prompted a spike in interest about the illness.

More surprisingly, they found that minorities and those with less education were more likely to seek out information and have conversations about pancreatic cancer following Jobs’ death.

Previous studies have confirmed that public figures who disclose or die from illnesses have an effect on the health behaviors of the general public. Researchers cite the example of NBA All-Star Magic Johnson disclosing his HIV-positive status, which “increased HIV/AIDS knowledge, HIV testing, and conversations with friends about AIDS.”

In this study, researchers set out to understand exactly who is most likely to engage in a response to a major public figure’s death, and for what reasons.

Three weeks after Jobs’ death in October 2011, they surveyed 1,398 employees at a large public university in the United States.

Confirming their hypotheses, they found that people who identified with Steve Jobs and had higher levels of “cancer worry” were more likely to seek information or have conversations about pancreatic cancer.

More surprisingly, they found that minorities (in particular, Asians and “other/mixed race”) and those with less education were more likely to seek out information and have conversations about pancreatic cancer following Jobs’ death. The researchers write:

Unfortunately, the population of individuals who may need cancer education the most often seek out cancer information the least—especially particular low income and racial minority populations for whom cancer is more prevalent. This makes our results fairly surprising, and it suggests that in certain contexts, cancer prevention, detection, and communication efforts directed toward disparity populations may find an approach that uses relevant public figures and celebrities as useful.

There are a few caveats though. Since the sample is already skewed toward higher education levels (84 percent had bachelor’s degree or more), the “less educated” sector of their sample was still well-educated. Also, the sample was more racially homogenous than researchers would have liked, despite their attempt to use a stratified sample.

Still, this study adds to the growing body of research surrounding public figures, mass communication, disease, and public health. The researchers conclude, “When a significant public figure dies (perhaps especially at a relatively young age), the public becomes interested in how he or she died, and this may be a critical opening for health communication efforts.”

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