Breast cancer study confirms the 'Angelina Jolie' effect

A study into the "Jolie Effect" by Weill Cornell Medicine and UNSW Sydney researchers demonstrates the power of celebrity illness to change patient behaviour.


Actor and UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie during a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in 2016. Photo: Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock.

Actress Angelina Jolie’s 2013 announcement detailing her decision to undergo a mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer likely inspired more women in English-speaking countries to do the same, according to a new study by researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and UNSW in Australia.

Using hospital discharge data from New York State and New South Wales from 2004-14 to examine trends in risk-reducing mastectomy (RRM), the researchers identified a significant increase in procedures starting in May 2013, three months after Jolie’s announcement.

They say their findings, published in Health Services Research, reveal that celebrities have the power to influence the healthcare decisions of the general public, and that healthcare professionals should leverage this effect by offering more information about treatment options, especially in regards to genetic testing results.

“This is an important area of research that healthcare providers and policy makers need to pay attention to,” said Dr Art Sedrakyan, a professor of healthcare policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine. “If celebrities are going to act on genetic testing and announce their treatment choices, then we should get prepared on our end to assess public health impact.”

The study found that 20 months before Jolie’s announcement, there were an average of 3.3 bimonthly RRM cases per 1 million women in New York; 20 months after the announcement, there were an average of 6.3 bimonthly RRM cases per 1 million women in New York. Rates of RRM in New South Wales were relatively similar.

A 2015 UK study showed an increase of RRM after Jolie’s announcement, but this new study shows correlation in two separate English-speaking countries, which also helps rule out local influences on RRM rates, said Dr Mao, who is an instructor of healthcare policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine.

It also validates previous studies that showed that singer Kylie Minogue’s 2005 breast cancer diagnosis led to an increase in breast imaging among Australian women age 25-44.

The researchers, including Professor Louisa Jorm, the Foundation Director of the Centre for Big Data Research in Health at UNSW Sydney, say that health professionals should be more proactive when celebrities announce personal health news, so that information about treatment, risk and cost is distributed clearly to the public.

“Both the ‘Kylie Effect’ and the ‘Jolie Effect’ demonstrate the power of celebrity illness and treatment to generate intense media coverage and change consumer behaviour,” Professor Jorm said.