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Health Communication in the Media: Experiencing Illness

By: Mariah LaRue

When I mention I study health communication, people are often curious. On the surface, it sounds straightforward. Health communication examines communication about health. However, health communication encompasses so many facets health and social science. Communication between doctors and patients, the experience of navigating a chronic illness, and the intersection of health and technology are just a few examples. As students of health communication we have learned about these different parts of the field, and think about how to solve problems related to these areas. Interestingly, the media often talks about topics we learn about and discuss in class.

This quarter in Dr. Lambert’s class we learned about the experience of illness. One thing we discussed is how a person’s identity changes throughout the course of a chronic illness. Essentially, as people go through an illness, their body fails them and they are no longer able to function as they once did, both physically and emotionally. Ill people have to grapple with physical symptoms, and also figure out how symptoms may impact their daily lives as they try to maintain quality of life. This has a major impact on identity and sense of self. For some ill people, the loss of self and emotional struggle causes more pain than the illness. Unfortunately, many medical providers don’t know what to do, or how to help patients suffering from these emotional ramifications of illness. This disconnect between the physical and emotional aspects of illness is a real problem clinics and organizations around the U.S. are trying to reconcile.

This article from National Public Radio tells the story of an ophthalmologist who was unaware of the emotional struggles her patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) face. She had never considered the implications this degenerative eye disorder had on her patients’ overall well-being, happiness, and identity. Eventually, she realized that many of her AMD patients had depression. This is likely due to the fact that as AMD patients lose their vision, they lose the autonomy of driving, and everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, and shopping become difficult. Since they are no longer able to perform in the same way they once were, they experience a loss of self and are tasked with treating their physical symptoms and relearning how to live everyday life.

The doctor in the article has recognized the challenges her patients face and is working to make a change. She found other clinics are working to address these problems as well. Some clinics offer counseling, or occupational and low-visions specialists to help patients learn to work with their changing body. Other clinics have simply started asking patients how they are coping with their illness.

In our class we learn about the broader social scientific theories that explain experiences of illness, and we talk about how we, as future health communication professionals, can help patients have better experiences of illness. The doctors in this article illustrate that these are real problems that need to be solved. As students of health communication, we think about new and innovative ways to address problems like these.