TV’s Top Public Health Moments of 2015

Ten television series that shine a light on issues from abortion and LGBT identity to mass incarceration and the war on drugs

December 15, 2015

There’s no better way to put the “public” in public health than through popular culture. Reaching millions of people is more than just PSAs: integrating health-related stories into television, movies, music, and radio is a tried and true method of communicating key messages to a mass audience.

“The most valuable communication tactics reach people where they already are,” says Gina Wingood, director of the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at the Mailman School. “When television and movies address stigmatized health topics like mental health, learning disabilities, and sexual health in a non-stigmatizing way—like they did this year—it’s really special. You see more and more people talking, writing, and thinking about public health, even if they don’t realize it.”

Check out our list of 2015’s best public health stories on television. And let us know if we missed anything! Tweet us @ColumbiaMSPH.

  1. Call the Midwife
    Midwives are on the frontlines of community health, and have been critical to the health of women and children. The BBC helps put their historical role into context in the series Call the Midwife, which airs on PBS in the United States. The action takes place in a poor neighborhood in East London in the early 1950s and follows the lives of several midwives as they serve their community through childbirth, pre- and post-natal care, and more. In a recent episode, one of the principal characters tracks a dysentery outbreak to a food delivery service.


    How to Get Away with Murder
    Shonda Rhimes’s How to Get Away with Murder had many advocates rejoicing in its portrayal of what it’s like to live with HIV in 2015. The HIV-positive character of Oliver and his boyfriend Connor navigate his diagnosis and how it affects their relationship in a way that feels both nuanced and realistic. The first episode of the show’s second season, which aired in September, marked the first time PReP treatment has ever been significantly addressed on primetime network television.

Photo: Mitchell Haaseth / ABC

  1. Inside Amy Schumer
    Between the Comedy Central show, Trainwreck, hosting Saturday Night Live, and a national stand up tour, Amy Schumer seemed to be everywhere you looked in 2015, often with bitingly accurate takes on gender equality and feminism. One of our favorite moments by the talented comedian: her short faux advertisement highlighting the hoops involved in getting access to birth control, featured in the first episode of season 3 of Inside Amy Schumer.

Image: Comedy Central / Buzzfeed

  1. Jane the Virgin
    The CW’s delightful Jane the Virgin has devoted many episodes this fall to an endearing and true-to-life depiction of early parenthood. Exhausted new mom Jane struggles to breastfeed, uses a breast pump, attempts to balance friendships and schooling with motherhood, tackles tricky co-parenting discussions with father Rafael. We see their realistically tiny newborn Mateo meet development milestones and challenges as he begins to track objects with his eyes and later has to wear a helmet after developing plagiocephaly.
  1. The Knick
    What was a New York City hospital like before our society built a robust, knowledgeable public health and healthcare system? In Cinemax’s The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh, we explore the world of medicine in 1900 through the eyes of Dr. John Thackery and the patients and staff at the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital. So far this season, characters have tracked the roots of an infectious disease, searched for the cause and a cure for drug addition, and covertly taught women about contraception. It’s not Soderbergh’s first venture into the public health world: he also directed the 2011 film Contagion, working closely with scientific advisor Ian Lipkin, professor of Epidemiology.


    In another riveting Netflix original show, Narcos, viewers see the damaging toll of violence from Colombian drug cartels. The show focuses on the rise of infamous Medellín Cartel under the leadership of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s campaign to bring them down. As the public health world grows louder in the national conversation about the epidemiology of violence, Narcos illustrates the bloody consequences of drug trade and the war against it.


    Orange Is The New Black
    The American epidemic of mass incarceration has immense public health consequences for those imprisoned and for entire communities. On Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which takes place in a women’s prison, issues from mental illness and race to violence in prison and discrimination against LGBT people is woven into the storyline. In Season 3, a private company is put in charge of prison operations; new, low-paid corrections officers aren’t given proper training, leading one to improperly pepper spray inmates.
    ABC’s hit show Scandal is no stranger to shocking its viewers, but November’s midseason finale was one for the books. The episode opens on Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, having an abortion. Abortion plotlines aren’t uncommon—examples from Girls, Parenthood, and Friday Night Lights come to mind—but network television showing a major character on the operating table, while the procedure is being performed, is a first. Later on in the episode, Mellie Grant, another major character, stands up to defend funding for Planned Parenthood on the Senate floor. 
    Sesame Street
    PBS’s classic children’s show Sesame Street has a long history of teaching children their ABCs, 123s—and about health. In Nigeria, Muppet Zobi teaches children about malaria and insecticide-treated bed nets, while in South Africa, the show features an HIV positive character named Kami. This year, the U.S. version of Sesame Street introduced Julia, its first Muppet with autism, to teach children about the disorder and combat stigma.


    2015 was a big year for the rights and prominence of transgender people, thanks in part to the star power of Caitlyn Jenner and Amazon’s critically acclaimed Transparent. In the show, which just released its second season earlier this month, Jeffery Tambor plays an aging father who in the first episode reveals that she identifies as a woman. Transparent follows her transition as her adult children come to terms with the news, exploring many facets of gender identity along the way.