Grey's Anatomy episode on sexual assault raised viewer awareness

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters Health) - An episode of the long-running television show Grey's Anatomy increased public awareness about sexual assault and how to get help, a study suggests.

On March 28, 2019, the medical drama series aired an episode called Silent All These Years, on the topic of consent and sexual assault. At the end of the episode, series star Ellen Pompeo appealed to viewers to ask for help if they were affected by sexual violence. She explained how to reach the free National Sexual Assault Hotline operated by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN (800-856-HOPE or via online chat at

To study the impact of that message, researchers analyzed trends on Google and Twitter for 2 weeks before and 1 week after the episode aired.

Trevor Torgerson and colleagues at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa analyzed searches of the terms "Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network", "RAINN", "sexual assault", "rape", "sexual assault hotline", and tweets mentioning @RAINN. They also contacted RAINN to get data on call volumes in the 48 hours after the episode aired.

"Engagements with the @RAINN Twitter account and tweets mentioning 'sexual assault hotline' increased by 1,097% the day after the episode," Torgerson, a medical student, told Reuters Health by email.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline call volume increase by 43% in the 48 hours after the episode, the authors found.

The volume of searches for the term "RAINN" was 41% larger than expected, and search volumes for "rape" and "sexual assault" were 8% and 9% higher, respectively.

The number of tweets mentioning "sexual assault hotline" and "RAINN" were 1,995% and 292% higher than usual, respectively.

Google and Twitter are only two measures of public awareness and engagement, the authors note.

Studies have shown audiences learn from - and sometimes act upon - what they see on TV, said Kate Langrall Folb, director of Hollywood, Health & Society at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center in Beverly Hills, California. "That's why it's so important that depictions around health be as accurate as possible."

Hollywood, Health & Society is a free resource on health, safety and security for the entertainment industry. Folb said her team worked with the producers of Grey's Anatomy on the Silent All These Years episode and helped connect them with RAINN.

"TV storylines can have a powerful impact on viewers, and when coupled with an action item, such as a hotline or website, we often see a significant spike in outreach directly after the show and public service announcement," Folb said by email.

The study authors say the episode may have been more impactful because of the lead actor's personal appeal. "An adored actress, such as Ellen Pompeo, may be able to convince someone to seek help in a way that 'only' flashing the hotline number may not be able to. That being said, if flashing the hotline number is all that can be done, we would agree there is a benefit to it," Torgerson said.

The episode included a scene in which doctors administered a rape kit to the victim.

"The fact that the episode (featured) a topic that has been stigmatized for a long time is important," said Torgerson, adding it may help survivors of sexual violence understand what getting help might be like.

The U.S. National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-856-HOPE (4673). In Australia, the number is 1800 RESPECT (1800 737-732). UK hotlines can be found at

SOURCE: JAMA Internal Medicine, online December 2, 2019.