You visit your doctor and listen to his recommendations for improving your health. You visit websites you trust for information about your medication or about a certain medical procedure. You discuss healthy lifestyle practices with your loved ones. You watch a viral video on social media which addresses the common cold. In each of these activities, though you may not know it, you’re participating in an incredibly important aspect of public life: health communication.

What Is Health Communication?

As its name suggests, health communication is a broad term which can generally be applied to any communication which is directly related to health information. Anytime you speak to your doctor, watch a YouTube video which addresses an issue of public health, or hear a radio ad reminding you to get your flu vaccination, you’re participating in health communication.

Additionally, health communication is a relatively new field of study which has begun to gain traction within the wider field of public health. While people have been communicating about health for millennia, health communication as a field of study truly took off once it was introduced as a chapter in the United States of American Health People 2010’s objective and supported by the IOM as an education field for public health officials to focus on moving forward. The CDC also chose to improve its communication capacity, creating a national center focused solely on public health communication, outreach, and marketing via its “Futures Initiative” campaign.

Those who study this branch of communication seek to improve the way we collectively think and speak about our health, and may design public health campaigns in order to inform communities of health-related issues. It is multidisciplinary and interventionist in nature, drawing from disciplines such as mass communication, health education, marketing, psychology, sociology, informatics, community health, epidemiology, film, and journalism. Many professionals, as part of public health campaigns, use multilevel communication strategies, tailoring messages to the individual, community, and population levels, and targeting social, individual, and environmental prisms that influence health outcomes.

Its Benefits

Health Communication

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Health communication has played a key role in disease prevention throughout history. For example, in 1721, smallpox, long endemic in Europe had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and plagued Boston with its terror. During the height of its chaos, the highly infectious disease was contracted by tens of thousands of Bostonians, with nearly one thousand succumbing to it. To combat this problem, a man named Cotton Mather used pamphlets and brochures to encourage the use of inoculation to attenuate the disease in Boston. Another example is from the film Supersize Me; it brought attention to audiences worldwide the impact that fast food has particularly on cardiovascular health. Since its release, many non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, and academic institutions have worked in alliance to improve cardiovascular health through research, intervention, and public health campaigns.

Conversely, health communication professionals and society as a whole are responsible for preventing the spread of misinformation, especially in at-risk communities with high levels of exposure to dangerous health issues. As with any field of communication, it is important that the conversations we have about health are truthful and based on meaningful data and research: health communicators can help to make this a reality.

What Can Health Communication Do?

As occurs with many of the social sciences, it can sometimes be hard to visualize what the concrete outcomes of proper health communication may be. That’s why we have listed below some of the major objectives of the field

  • To prevent the spread of disease by informing populations on how to protect themselves
  • To change social norms with respect to lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drug abuse
  • To advocate for the development and research of health technology
  • To campaign for political mandates regarding health research
  • To disseminate health education, especially among at-risk communities
  • To prompt grassroots political action in order to stimulate change
  • To encourage public health compliance
  • To strengthen the relationships between messengers and audiences; be it doctors and patients or among public health professionals
  • To increase government funding for public health services and interventions
  • To discredit misconceptions about public health issues
  • To improve the overall quality of a society’s health
  • To inform the public of oncoming emergencies and how to protect themselves
  • To improve transparency within the health system and minimize unnecessary confusion
  • To pave the way for further health communication research in academia
  • To work through many channels simultaneously and affect different subsets of society

Why It's Critically Important

As the old adage goes, talking about your problems can make them better. This is because communication is what makes our societies work. Every day, billions of people from all around the world read newspapers, comment on blog postings, watch television, and speak with each other about the world we live in. Yet while politics, fashion, and shareable content flood social media and news sites, little of what we see on a daily basis is related to our health and wellbeing, both as individuals and as a community.

But despite its lack of attention, health communication is of vital importance to our society. Now, as global climate change worsens our air quality and intensifies the impacts of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, man-made disasters cause many to flee and live in inhumane conditions, new diseases emerge in different parts of the world such as Zika in South America, or health issues arrive in your local community, effective health communication can literally make the difference in crucial life or death moments.

Challenges in Health Communication

As with any discipline, there are a number of challenges specific to the field of health communication. Those who dedicate their lives to the study of health and health communication address these problems on a daily basis. But laypeople can also contribute to bettering the sphere of public health by simply being aware of these issues. Below, we have listed some of the challenges deemed most relevant to the field.

  • Reaching young adults: College students and other young adults have generally been some of the least insured segments of the population at large, and tend to report themselves as being in “very good” or “excellent” health. But drug and alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety, and unhealthy lifestyles run rampant among these generations, and such problems take their tolls sooner rather than later. Informing young adults about the seriousness of healthy habits is a major issue for the field, and critical to the future of our societies.
  • Health literacy: For any communication to be effective, it needs to be understood by all parties involved. Unfortunately, medical and insurance-related jargon and unclear, poorly formed messages can lead to serious misunderstandings about individual and community health; in fact, many companies and insurance providers will intentionally provide confusing or vague information, in the hopes of inducing people to pay for services or medication they may not need. These problems tend to disproportionately affect the elderly, who may suffer from myriad health issues simultaneously and may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information with which they are provided. Being able to provide clear, concise information can make an enormous difference in the quality of such individuals’ lives. 
  • Misinformation: Unfortunately, we live in a contradictory world. While social media and 24-hour news outlets have connected us like never before, they have also given rise to a new kind of communication phenomenon: the quick spread of purposefully misinformative campaigns meant to trick individuals into believing false information. A perfect example of this is the association in recent years of childhood MMR vaccinations with the development of autism. Although the scientific and medical community have categorically denied this claim, many individuals have bought into it and have refused to vaccinate their children. This is just one example of a very real and dangerous issue of public health. It is up to health communication specialists and the entire community to combat the propagation of falsehoods, by communicating effectively about public health.


image source: via Clem Onojeghuo

As citizens, we have a number of responsibilities. We are supposed to vote and participate in the political system. We are supposed to obey the law. We are supposed to work and contribute to our society’s future. But just as important as any of these is the fact that we have an obligation to communicate with other members of our society about issues of vital importance. Individual and community health is perhaps the most important issue of all, as it is a determinant factor both in our individual happiness and wellbeing and in a society’s survival.

You’ve probably heard the statistics regarding American health. We rank poorly among developed nations in everything from heart disease to obesity. But unhealthy lifestyles don’t have to be our country’s future. And you don’t have to have Master's or Doctorate degrees in communicational science to make a difference. By paying attention to how we communicate about health, by taking public health campaigns seriously, and by keeping ourselves informed with reputable, qualified sources, we can work together to improve health for us, our children, and our society.

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