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Using Communication to Improve Health Outcomes

As early as high school, Bobbi Hummel ’18 knew she wanted to work in healthcare.

After a volunteer experience helped her rule out nursing as a career path, she decided she was better suited for a non-clinical role. So she earned a bachelor’s degree in health policy and administration from Penn State University and began her career in 2005 at insurance company Humana.

“I worked on Medicare Advantage Plans and loved it,” she says. “The federal government allows certain companies to sell these plans on their behalf. I would help pick out copays and examine the competition to see what was selling and what wasn’t. We offered clinical programs and services like disease management and medication therapy management, and I started to enjoy working more on those.”

To encourage positive health outcomes for Medicare Advantage members, Hummel would partner with a clinician or pharmacist to create new health interventions or programs.

This initiative required lots of crucial communication with members, and she often found herself asking questions and testing different types of education to see which worked better. Is having a nurse call a member every two weeks more effective than online education when it comes to managing type II diabetes? Are certain actions able to keep members from ending up in the ER or help them avoid a health complication?

After moving to Chicago, Hummel learned about Northwestern’s MS in Health Communication program—and was encouraged by how much it aligned with the work she was already doing at Humana.

“I always wanted to go to grad school and knew it would be related to healthcare, but didn’t know what,” she says. “This was the only program I had ever heard of that specialized exclusively in health communication. I wanted to formalize my education and learn as much as I could. What could we do to keep our members engaged and increase participation rates?”

From Day One, she says the graduate program was exactly what she hoped it would be—and applicable to her work.

In Dr. Kim Pusateri’s Social Context of Illness elective, for example—which explores how partners communicate about health and influence each other’s health-related behaviors—Hummel remembers choosing a health condition to champion and research: heart disease. Simultaneously, she was working on a pharmacy initiative at work to improve outcomes for rural Medicare members who had congestive heart failure.

“In Dr. Pusateri’s class, I learned that patients or members are more likely to be successful in behavior change if their significant other is involved or doing it with them,” she explains. “So that was something we incorporated into the next phase of our pharmacy initiative at work. We started inviting members’ spouses to come to the pharmacy appointments as well.”

In May 2020, Hummel started a new endeavor at Aetna as the Medicare Advantage product implementation manager—working once again on Medicare Advantage Plans like she did in her very first job. She says her MS in Health Communication degree continues to serve her personally and professionally.

“Communication is very important in my new role,” she explains. “The plans are for people who have Medicare but are also eligible for Medicaid. The government requires us to provide each member with a care manager to eliminate barriers and make sure they get the care they need. My education has really helped. I know how important it is to make these plans successful to help our members be healthier and get better every day.”