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Doing Her Part to Improve Communication Within Healthcare

After serving in the U.S. Navy and starting a family, Stefanie Manack ’18 entered the world of healthcare in 2004 for the first time.

Earning her associate degree in medical imaging and becoming a certified x-ray technologist, she worked at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for more than eight years. As her career progressed, it became obvious that a bachelor’s degree was necessary to move into leadership. “Bachelor’s degrees in medical imaging don’t really exist,” Manack explains. “There were only a few schools that offer them around the country, and they were hands-on programs. I already had those skills, and I didn’t want a degree that would limit me to only healthcare.”

With a family and other commitments in Illinois, she knew she didn’t want to travel far to continue her education. Discovering the Organization Behavior program at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies, she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2013 while working full-time.

Describing herself as “perpetually curious,” Manack revisited higher education only a few years later and decided it was time for a graduate degree—even though she was approaching 50. “Many people asked me why I wanted another degree at this stage in my life. I had a good job in an industry I loved,” she says, “but I knew I wanted to go further. I just didn’t know what that looked like.”

Her goal: to expand her knowledge beyond the realm of imaging. So she started looking for a degree that would help propel her career without limiting future opportunities. “Most people in my field would look to an MHA or MBA, but neither interested me,” she explains. When she discovered the MS in Health Communication program, she felt like it was the right fit.

Manack already knew what to expect when it came to the caliber of a Northwestern education—but being an alumna played only a small role in her decision to return.

Her professional experiences had revealed that the importance of communication seemed to be underrepresented in healthcare. She also understood the impact of communication from the patient and family perspectives as well: Manack’s aunt had been involved in a grievous medical error as the result of miscommunication.

“80% of all healthcare errors are communication errors,” Manack explains. “When you’re working in a direct patient care area, such as imaging, communication is critically important. There are nuances about how technologists, nurses, respiratory therapists, etc. communicate with patients—but that seemed to be where it stopped. There was never a real focus on communication from leadership or among practitioners.”

Entering the program with more than 13 years of healthcare experience, Manack felt like she already had a good understanding of the healthcare system—but the MS in Health Communication program helped her realize there was much more to learn.

“You can’t find better experts than those teaching this program,” she says. “You can’t get anyone on the planet better than Dr. Pusateri to help with your writing. Dr. Lambert explained the body of work he’s done, like how to avoid communication errors through medication labels. And I learned so much about insurance and the history of U.S. healthcare from Dr. Liss.”

After she graduated, she carried these lessons forward to her role as a performance partner at Accumen. Working side by side with health systems, specialty health organizations, and healthcare investors, Manack helps them solve their most pressing problems and facilitate better workflow.

“We learn the most from the frontline workers in our client organizations, but their directives come from two or three levels above,” she says. “Communicating appropriately—and listening not to answer but to learn—is critical. I help facilitate that communication between someone at a higher level and the people they need to inspire, from imaging and the emergency department to IT and scheduling.”

She believes that enrolling in the program with several years of healthcare practice helped her draw even more from the curriculum because so much of it—along with the lessons she learned from fellow students—related to her own experiences.

“In any business or line of work, success can often be traced back to differentiating yourself,” says Manack. “What I learned about the science behind communication and how people receive messages is eye-opening. We all think we’re great communicators because we speak in clear sentences. But we need to learn how to facilitate the exchange of information in new and theoretically sound ways.”