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Why a degree in Health Communication?

By: Kamila Lada, Class of 2019

Attending the initial informational session for the Northwestern University MS in Health Communication Program demonstrated the breadth of issues plaguing the systems within the healthcare industry. The mission: to learn strategies on how to improve communication to improve patient quality of life and safety across their interactions within healthcare. When a person is sick, they are vulnerable and unsure of what to do, where to go, who to talk to, even losing their sense of self along the way. People neglect to seek treatment due to difficulty understanding the system and how to navigate the hospital, their insurance, and using their valuable time to wait a long time for a clinician to meet with them for a few minutes.

One example that resonated with me was tracking a patient’s interactions with departments of a hospital – the interaction picture resembled webs that could easily become tangled. For example, the patient needs to go through the primary care physician to get a referral to go to a specialist. The specialist may draw labs, which then need a lab tech to send out to a processing source. There may be another specialist involved, which may require radiology’s assistance, thereby requiring someone else to read the reports. As the snowball effect continues, each strand in the web utilizes a different portal, communication method, varying medications, and a myriad of potential errors that can lead to life-threatening mistakes. These webs of communication pose many threats, and statistically, the more variables there are in a situation, the higher chance there is of developing tangles like tau within a brain affected by Alzheimer’s.  

Ideally, to fix the issue of too many communication systems, we can attempt to reduce to one system; or use a program for the many current portals to funnel into one. However, even in the first few weeks of class, we are realizing that communication issues are trickier to fix than initially believed. Even the simplest issue is multifaceted and can impact dozens or thousands of people. I’m astounded to realize there are plenty of issues to choose from. Handwashing may be an issue, but how does one encourage physicians who should be the most motivated to not spread disease to wash their hands? How can we increase health literacy in general public so they can understand how to read a nutrition label and eat healthier for themselves, their wellbeing, their body. How can reading said nutrition label lead to reduction in salt intake of diabetic people. Their home diabetic care, from the medications, to the insulin, to consistent monitoring of blood sugar, scheduling follow up visits requires investment and time to learn and someone to learn from. Also, if they have to wait a disproportionate amount of time to be seen for a routine procedure that takes a few minutes, there may not be strong motivation to check in with the doctor or continue their care until something serious occurs. This would lead to more time, resources, funding, and risk for everyone involved.

On another note, health communicationists can figure out ways to implement a strategy in a smaller population to reduce the variables of an experimental solution – say one department of a major hospital. But, then the issue still prevails across hospitals in rural areas or clinics. Perhaps a solution that works for a hospital department would not work every hospital department, or for any other medical center other than a major chain. And if experimental solutions are only introduced in a small, controlled population (i.e. 1 major hospital’s department), these solutions are usually not tried in smaller hospitals or clinics, where they could perhaps work. The generalizability would not be able to neatly transfer to a large-scale solution.

Furthermore, the current US healthcare system has a lot of resources between state and federal funding; however, issues have been addressed as they come up over the years, creating a system of “haphazard incrementalism” – think of solutions placed like bandaids on a leaky pipe as water bursts through previous patches or weakened points. No one had the intent to design the healthcare system as it stands. Without designing a project, there is no intent of user-friendliness, efficiency, consideration of population or allocation of resources. Short term costs are fixated upon despite long term savings – i.e. preventable health care given to the mass public at public outreach events can lead to fewer costly hospitalizations due to illness complications.

In the first few weeks of the Health Communication program, we are merely exploring the communication issues that can be, while many students work full time, are parents, and manage reading/writing to maintain their own standard of excellence. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to be present when brilliant minds thrum in the classroom through discourse. I can’t wait to keep learning.