LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - That young mother with breast cancer on "Grey's Anatomy" may do more than just drive the storyline: She may also be teaching you something.
Recognizing the reach of popular television shows, real-life doctors and public health experts are at work behind the scenes to add a dose of education to entertainment.
"Viewers get a lot of health information from TV shows. That's why we want to work with the writers to make sure it's accurate," said Vicki Beck, who directs a government-funded project that connects TV scriptwriters with medical experts.
More than half of regular viewers reported learning something about a disease from a daytime or prime-time drama, according to an analysis of data from a 2001 survey by public relations company Porter Novelli.
Findings like that caught the eye of government health officials, advocacy groups and academic physicians, who saw a compelling way to get medical information to millions.
Now, doctors regularly consult for hospital dramas "Grey's Anatomy" and "ER" plus "Desperate Housewives" and other non-medical hits that weave in health storylines. They also help fictional doctors on "General Hospital" and other daytime soap operas sound like the real thing.
Medical experts answer questions about everything from what drugs a patient would take to how a person could survive a gunshot to the head.
Advocates also brief shows on hot topics that may spark ideas for future plotlines.
"We've had some very nice outcomes," said Mike Miller, senior science writer at the National Cancer Institute, between a meeting with staff from "ER" and a meeting with staff from another medical hit, "House."
Real-world experts provided information to "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" before each aired storylines about women with a gene that raises breast-cancer risk, he said.
Viewers who saw both episodes knew more about the gene afterward and were more likely to take steps to get screened for breast cancer, University of Southern California researchers found.
The cancer institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and two other federal agencies fund Beck's program, called Hollywood, Health & Society and based at the university's Annenberg Norman Lear Center. The group has fielded more than 400 requests from TV shows in the past two years.
Transplant officials joined on after growing frustrated by portrayals of kidneys being sold on a black market or a well-connected patient moving up on a waiting list.
There is no evidence of either happening in the United States, say experts, who worry such unrealistic depictions may discourage organ donation.
"That's the kind of thing we're trying to counter," said Joyce Somsak, an associate administrator who oversees organ transplantation at the Health Resources and Services Administration.
Organ transplant specialists consulted with the crime show "Numb3rs" and rejoiced when characters in one episode discussed the organ shortage and passed around donor cards, Somsak said. "That was a really good show," Somsak said.
In a later survey, 10 percent of viewers who said they had not signed up as organ donors before the show did so after watching.
Television writers and researchers say they try to present medical conditions accurately and even promote healthy behavior. Some popular shows employ doctors as writers or have consultants on the set.
Actress Kimberly McCullough, who plays HIV-positive doctor Robin Scorpio on "General Hospital," said despite "many outlandish storylines" the show's writers "have decided to stick to ... a more realistic portrayal" of life with the AIDS virus. Her character often mentions that she takes a drug cocktail to keep the virus in check.
When the fictional Dr. Scorpio started dating another doctor, played by actor Jason Thompson, "I don't know how many times we had to mention spermicidal jelly and condoms. It was mandatory," Thompson told a meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Los Angeles.
The creative minds in Hollywood admit, however, that their quest for drama may stretch reality.
"We collapse time. People recover much more quickly than they actually would in real life. We don't spend a lot of time with patients in waiting rooms," said Elizabeth Klaviter, director of medical research for "Grey's Anatomy."
But "in terms of disease processes -- the cause and effect of things -- on our show those are pretty accurate," she said.
Her show has a medical doctor on the writing staff, and Klaviter said she often seeks help from outside experts.
The real-life health advocates say they cannot control what appears in scripts. "We certainly understand that these are entertainment programs. They have to find a dramatic way in to tell a story," NCI's Miller said.
But any success pays dividends. With 30-second ads on hot shows costing $300,000 or more, Beck's government-funded group estimates it has influenced TV time worth tens of millions of dollars with an annual budget that now stands around $560,000.
"It's extremely cost-effective," Beck said.