A 911 Phone Call from the 90210 Enlists Medical Help for TV Shows

Have you ever wondered what you might learn from intense medical stories in shows like House or Grey’s Anatomy? UC Irvine alumni, Dr. Sheena Nahm, may have something to say about that.

Nahm attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for her undergraduate education as a pre-med student. While there, she became interested in Cultural Anthropology. She decided to double major, receiving a degree in biological sciences and in social sciences.

She went on to receive her master’s degree in public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia. During her master’s education, she became interested in community health in minority and immigration populations.

In order to explore more theoretical issues, Nahm attended UCI and earned her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2009.

After earning her degree, Nahm began working for Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a program of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Norman Lear Center. Here, as a research specialist, she has the opportunity to combine her interest in public health and her passion for studying culture and society.

“The work I do now represents the fusion of all the paths I had taken up to that point in my life,” Nahm said, adding that she has “always believed strongly in the power of interdisciplinary thinking.”

At HH&S Nahm studies the influence of medical shows or episodes on their audience. She is in charge of designing surveys that post before and after a television episode in which key medical information was aired.

According to Nahm, in public health and health communications research, data from these types of surveys can help researchers analyze changes in knowledge, attitudes or behaviors related to the health sciences.

“My master’s thesis used a similar design [comparing pre- and post-test surveys] to look at the effect of a multi-media hepatitis B education campaign that was geared toward Chinese immigrant youth in Philadelphia. That experience during my graduate years has prepared me to enter the field of research I am in now,” Nahm said.

As a researcher, Nahm also works with interns who are both undergraduate and graduate students. Students as well as faculty members serve as crucial collaborators on projects for some key health-related topics. Research projects assess the different ways in which entertainment education can be an effective strategy for raising awareness about how people engage with popular TV shows and learn about health in the process.

According to their Web site, HH&S “provides entertainment industry professions with accurate and timely information for health storylines.”

Nahm works on the development of research design and methodology. This is where her Ph.D. in anthropology along with a master’s degree in public health work hand-in-hand. Her extraordinary qualifications enhance the public health evaluation strategies and also help study the educational power of entertainment.

At UCI, Nahm’s doctoral project examined the work of play therapists in Korea. While the chief focus of her dissertation was not initially on the media, she found that television shows and their respective online forums had a strong influence on parents who were resistant to seeking out therapy for their children.

Some parents told therapists that they considered therapy after it was aired on a popular reality television show. Her fascination with the role of media on people’s attitudes toward mental health prompted  Nahm to take an interest in projects that might further explore this phenomena.

According to Nahm, the goals of educating and entertaining can form a hybrid model.

“[This] can show how much serious things like health education can combine with a leisure activity like watching your favorite television show to form a really powerful mode of communication,” Nahm said.

Although the two may not seem interconnected at first glance, Sheena Nahm’s work and educational experiences prove that entertainment, play and leisure can be an effective learning method.