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Guiding Patients Toward Smarter Healthcare Decisions

Equipped with an advertising degree from West Virginia University, Julia Weigle ’20 was ready to embark on a new career after graduation in 2012. She loved Mad Men and the era that changed advertising—and she was ready to make a mark of her own.

Her first opportunity came with the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois, where she landed a special events internship. Her responsibilities included helping with KidneyMobile (a mobilized resource offering community screenings, providing disease education, and facilitating follow-up appointments). Unexpectedly, this experience redirected her career path: She now wanted to work within healthcare.

After her internship, Weigle stayed in Chicago and applied for a job with the Department of Ophthalmology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, where she partnered with clinicians, researchers, and medical academics.

“Because I worked with people who had long clinic hours and full schedules, I was sometimes pulled from the admin side to help out in the clinic,” she explains. “I got to speak with patients on the phone as an additional resource because they were limited on staff. That experience made me want to grow and expand even more within the field of healthcare.”

After a short stint in osteopathic accreditation, she returned to Northwestern—this time with Feinberg’s Physician Assistant Program. As a medical curriculum coordinator, she learned about healthcare delivery and provider training as she worked with students to map and execute curriculum.

During this process, she also uncovered the forms of messaging and technology that can be used to reach patients and decided it was time to learn more … so she investigated advanced degrees. After discovering that one of her coworkers was enrolled in Northwestern’s MS in Health Communication program, Weigle asked about her experiences.

“I had seen ads all over, and I was curious. What I liked most about what she told me was that the degree wouldn’t make me feel like I was painted into a corner. You could apply your own interpretation and path to go the way you want with your career.”

Once in the program, Weigle says she was blown away by the accessibility of the faculty and staff as she learned about evidence-based practices in communication, ways to apply them in healthcare settings, and expected outcomes. “It’s a broad degree, but the professors were always able to find the minutiae that mattered,” she explains. “They dig up these pearls that you hang onto and keep with you as you move through the program. It was information I’ll carry with me for a long time.”

For her, one of those pearls was found in The U.S. Healthcare System course led by Dr. David Liss, which describes, explains, and analyzes the structure and function of the U.S. healthcare system. With this foundation, she feels better prepared to steer patients toward smarter financial choices to set them up for success.

In January, Weigle took on a new opportunity with health tech startup Upfront Healthcare Services, a patient navigation and engagement platform. The company proactively reaches out to patients to build trust and loyalty within health systems while improving health literacy and patient experiences: encouraging them to attend appointments, complete annual wellness visits, follow necessary post-op care, and make time for preventative care like mammograms and colorectal screenings.

The team is also currently focused on COVID-19 vaccine outreach, supporting DuPage Medical Group in an effort to educate and prepare patients so they’re ready as soon as the vaccine is available to them.

As the health communications and content strategy manager, Weigle works with MSHC alum, Nisha Dholakia ’16, Upfront’s director of health communications and content strategy. Using many of the communication frameworks and theories she learned during the program (especially from Dr. Nathan Walter’s Engaging Patients in Healthcare class), Weigle designs messages that motivate and encourage patients to become more educated and make better health decisions.

“We want to eliminate uncertainty,” she says. “We do this through outreach, which is highly personalized and heavily rooted in health communication principles. We reach out to patients and ask, ‘Do you know why you need this appointment?’ We help them figure out transportation and connect them with insurance experts. The goal is to get patients the care they need. Before earning this degree, I never knew there was a need to strategize this type of content. By doing so, I can help motivate patients so they become more involved with their own healthcare and achieve better outcomes.”