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Communication Beyond Health

By: Mariah LaRue

Our coursework at Northwestern is undeniably giving us a solid background in health communication by offering courses about health literacy, patient engagement, and behavior change, among other things. Though specialized towards health, the content of this degree can actually be applied to a variety of different contexts. So if even if any of us decide to eventually leave health, many topics from our coursework will still be relevant in the context of another field.

In conversations in both my personal and professional life I often hear the word “communication” mentioned as the reason for problems. Many organizational difficulties stem from a communication breakdown, whether it’s the fact that an email got overlooked, directions were misunderstood, or a person’s concerns were ignored. If it’s obvious that so many problems stem from communication it seems most people

should know how to start fixing problems. The thing about communication is that although it’s incredibly common, it is sometimes hard to do well. It’s easy to be biased, or forget to listen. This may lead us to attempt to reconcile problems by reiterating the points we think are important. By focusing on our own perspectives we may end up wasting time addressing problems in ineffective ways. 

In Dr. O’Keefe’s persuasion course we learned about how many health campaigns are unsuccessful because they address arguments the audience does not care about. For instance, if a campaign tries to inspire people to obtain something like a colonoscopy by highlighting the potential effects of colon cancer, and the audience already sees colon cancer as a threat but doesn’t have the time to get the procedure done, the campaign may not be effective. The campaign is emphasizing something the audience agrees with, but fails to address the actual barrier to behavior change. It illustrates how important it is to listen to others, because the argument you think will be effective may not always be the best strategy to trigger the behavior change you want to see. Even though we learned these ideas in a health communication course, they can be applied in almost any context. Such ideas may be particularly relevant for those in management or organizational change. Similarly, Dean O’ Keefe’s class in the fall focused on interaction in healthcare, but many of the principles can apply to communication in various contexts and organizations. For instance, utilizing social networks to create change applies in healthcare, but could also be harnessed to inspire change in any organization or community. Another example of universal applicability is our course on Human Computer Interaction. The content primarily focused on health technology design, development, and implementation, but the same challenges of usability, engagement, user experience, and adoption of the product can apply to any type of technology in any environment.

Communication may be a fundamental aspect of human existence, but that doesn’t mean everyone can do it well. As students of health communication we have been taught to be thoughtful and critical of the type of communication we engage in. Our tailored coursework from the program has taught us how to apply communication principles specifically to contexts concerning health and healthcare, but it’s worth noting many of these concepts apply to an array of personal and professional contexts.