Do well-publicized medical cases drive people to seek care? In at least one case, the answer is yes: Publicity surrounding the death of actress Natasha Richardson after a head injury triggered a 73 percent increase in emergency room visits for head trauma, according to research presented Monday at the American College of Emergency Physicians' annual meeting in Boston.

Brian Walsh and colleagues at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey looked at the number of patients seen by doctors in 19 urban, suburban, and rural emergency rooms in New York and New Jersey in March 2009. During that month, more than 2,500 of nearly 87,000 visits were for head trauma.

They compared the daily visits for head injury in the 10 days before and after March 18, the day Richardson died following a skiing accident. Although the visits for head trauma increased significantly after March 18, only "a very small proportion of patients—in the two to three percent range—really had anything to worry about," Walsh told Reuters Health.

By March 31, the number of visits returned to the pre-March 18 range.

"The study quantified what we already knew: when the media make people more aware of a disease process, they get scared and come to the emergency room," Walsh said. In this case, "the media played up the 'sudden death syndrome' aspect—the idea that you can have a minor fall, look great afterwards, and suddenly die."

Although people sometimes can look all right temporarily after this type of injury, generally, "they will pass out or have a period of confusion before deteriorating," he explained.

Media campaigns that increase knowledge by encouraging people to go to an emergency room if, for example, they show signs of a stroke or heart attack, can be helpful, Walsh acknowledged. "But in this case, there was some exaggeration about how minor the fall was, and how perfect she looked afterwards."

"It's similar to what's going on now with swine flu," Walsh observed. "Every time someone dies, we get a bump in visits. But most people aren't dying from it, and everyone is paranoid. The extra knowledge is making them scared."