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Encouraging People to Take Action in Healthcare

After attempting to navigate the healthcare system during her own gluten-intolerance diagnosis, Kamilah Howard ’16 developed a personal interest in healthcare. Her undergraduate degree in public relations and advertising from Penn State University also fashioned a love for communication and its ability to be used as a problem-solving tool.

“I realized I could blend those two interests,” she explains. “In healthcare, communication is half the battle in terms of improving quality of life. After my own experience, I realized how broken the system was and felt compelled to improve it.”

Howard wanted to help patients better understand the decisions being made about their own health and wade through the complex layers of healthcare without industry jargon, complicated language, or alphabet soup heard in Washington, DC.

Within a year of graduating from Penn State University, she started searching for master’s programs from well-known institutions that would help her reach this goal. That’s when Howard found Northwestern’s MS in Health Communication program. The Saturday classes would allow her to work full-time, build experience, and earn a master’s degree all at once.

“I went into it with eyes wide open, knowing I could end up anywhere,” she says. “I took advantage of every offering. For me, the program peered into the heart and soul of healthcare and could help me find my niche: somewhere I could thrive.”

As she looks back, what stands out to Howard is what she learned about the patient experience and how it impacts so many facets of life—from work and family to how people view themselves mentally and physically.

“I realized that health isn’t just an industry,” she explains. “It’s part of the fabric of our society. The program teaches that so well. You learn how the healthcare system works, how it fails too often, and how there’s hope to change it.”

Even though it’s viewed through a healthcare lens, she says that much of the curriculum applies to anyone who wants to improve communication in any industry.

While earning her degree, Howard also worked at a small public relations firm that managed Walgreens’ Expressions Challenge program, which targeted teens in and around Chicago, encouraging them to use their creativity to communicate about the issues they face every day.

“These students were facing tough situations like teen pregnancy, gun violence, and mental health issues. The program helped them express themselves about serious topics while becoming better connected to their peers,” she explains. “Every Monday, I used the skills I learned just a few days before in class as I engaged with this younger community and helped them find ways to positively showcase their feelings—often revealing deeper health issues.”

After earning her MS in Health Communication, she spent almost two years at the American Cancer Society as a media advocacy manager, where she focused on health policy issues important to the cancer community and raised awareness through media outreach, Capitol Hill briefings, and storytelling campaigns to encourage positive action from policymakers.

From there, she joined a public relations firm to take her career beyond patient advocacy—but soon realized she missed working on behalf of physicians and their patients.

Today, Howard is the senior manager of advocacy communications at the American Academy of Dermatology Association in Washington, DC. Howard leads the communications strategy in the DC office, which includes policy and issue-based campaigns, media relations, advertising, social media, Capitol Hill events, and grassroots efforts. That work shines a light on physician issues that impact patient care.

“I don’t think I would’ve taken the leap to come to DC without talking to Dr. Lambert first and building that rapport. He kept telling us his door was open, so I decided to walk through it. That was the best decision I ever made. He’s such a great mentor and friend.”

Although COVID-19 posed some unique challenges for Howard, the skills she built at Northwestern guided her strategy as she focused on helping physicians keep their doors open and safely treat patients, as well as promote the heroic actions of dermatologists on the frontlines, including the COVID-19 dermatology registry.

“Priorities quickly change with my job; however, the skills I learned in this program are invaluable and have given me the adaptability I need to succeed. I have the tools to peer into the healthcare system, analyze what isn’t working, and develop messages that encourage stakeholders to take action. It’s exciting!”