Answer: Both the Master of Public Health and a Master’s in Health Communication concern how to improve individual and community health outcomes through effective communication and evidence-based strategies. However, the MPH concerns more of the behavioral science and epidemiological aspects of building and sustaining effective community health initiatives, while a Master’s in Health Communication focuses more on the communication principles and strategies for influencing people’s decisions around health. Therefore, while health communication is a necessary element of effective public health strategy, it is also a discipline that is distinct in its own right.
Public Health vs. Health Communication
Public health is defined as the promotion of the health of a whole community through government regulations and initiatives, as well as the programming and campaigns of non-governmental organizations with a mission statement to improve community health outcomes. Public health is a highly interdisciplinary field, encompassing epidemiology, behavioral and social science, medicine, urban and community planning, policymaking, social work, and health communication. Professionals who work in public health include physicians and nurses at community health centers, social workers, public policymakers, and inspectors of public facilities, all of whom collaborate in the design and implementation of health promotion initiatives at the individual, group, community, and even national and international levels.
Health communication is a central piece of any effective public health initiative, and as such it is a core element of the everyday work that public health professionals do, regardless of their specific area within the discipline. For example, epidemiologists who gain important insights about the spread and prevention of certain diseases use health communication strategies to convey their findings to colleagues as well as the public. Public health policymakers must be effective at advocating for their cause amongst stakeholders, while community health physicians, nurses, social workers, and therapists must be skilled in interpersonal communication in order to effect the necessary changes to their patients’ health decisions.
While health communication is a subset of public health strategy, it is also an independent discipline in which professionals can specialize, and indeed many public health organizations rely on experts in health communication to help them design, improve, and evaluate their strategies for connecting with the public. Health communication encompasses, not only the examples above, but also health marketing initiatives, public relations for health organizations, interpersonal communication between patients, and their family members, and providers, and political communication as it relates to the advancement of health care policies.
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Master of Public Health vs. Master’s in Health Communication Programs
The aforementioned overlap of and differences between public health and health communication are reflected in the curricula for the graduate programs in each respective field. To learn more about the specifics of the curricula for MPH programs and master’s in health communication programs, including detailed overviews of each type of program and sample course descriptions, see below.
Master of Public Health
Master of public health degree programs provide students with a strong foundation in human biology, biostatistics, epidemiology, and behavioral and social science, as well as health management principles, policy making and regulation, and environmental health. MPH programs may also allow students to specialize in areas such as policy leadership, women’s health, behavioral health, disease management and preventative care, substance abuse and addictions, and more. Below are sample core courses that are typically found in a master of public health program. Please keep in mind that both the course titles and descriptions are meant to serve as examples only, and that MPH programs vary in terms of their offered specializations and specific course content.
- Epidemiology: The principles of and strategies for investigating infection and noninfectious diseases. How to model the distribution and dynamics of diseases within various populations, and understand and report on disease pathogenesis, transmission, and other etiological factors. How to design studies to examine disease phenomena, including randomized trials, cohort studies, and risk estimations. The relationship between epidemiology and the development and implementation of effective health policies and initiatives.
- Environmental Health: A foundational overview of all the environmental factors that affect public health, including ecological, scientific, social, behavioral, economic, and political issues that characterize the health of a community. This course investigates the adverse effects of environmental risk factors on various populations of varying susceptibility. How to assess and manage environmental risk through a combination of research and program development.
- Health Policymaking: The processes for developing effective public health policies, and the contemporary public policy issues that are relevant to community health, including child nutrition, food regulations, gun policies, health care accessibility, public safety policies, and more. Students learn models for analyzing and optimizing policy processes, and conducting reviews of policy issues.
- Human Biology: The fundamentals of human biology and physiology at the molecular, cellular, organ, and organ systems levels. Students discuss the mechanistic principles of each human organ and organ system in relation to environmental and public health topics.
- Behavioral and Social Sciences: The central concepts and principles of human psychology and behavior and how public health professionals can take these principles into account when developing primary health programs and community health initiatives. Students examine historical and contemporary examples of how health-related behaviors relate to community health outcomes.
Master’s in Health Communication
Master of Health Communication programs, unlike MPH programs, do not focus as heavily on the scientific aspects of human and community health. For example, while these programs may include classes that cover biostatistics, human biology, and epidemiology, they do not go as in-depth into these disciplines as an MPH program would. Additionally, not all master’s in health communication programs include courses in the aforementioned areas, whereas with the MPH degree, epidemiology, biology, and statistical analyses are central to students’ training.
Classes in graduate health communication programs typically include courses in communication research methods, consumer behavior and psychology, family communication, intercultural and interpersonal communication, health policy, health management strategies, public relations for health organizations, health marketing, and designing health campaigns. Specializations available for master’s in health communication programs can include health marketing, health policy communication, community education, and patient-provider communication. Below are sample courses for a Master’s in Health Communication program. Please note that the following courses are examples only, and should not be viewed as representative of all master’s in health communication programs, as there is wide variance in this field.
- The Health Care System: A examination of the American health care system, including discussions of the organizations, resources, and stakeholders within this system, as well as the policies and governmental structures that shape it. An analysis of the history of American health care, current issues in the space, and the central challenges facing Americans in accessing quality healthcare.
- Research Methods in Health Communication: The social scientific methods of researching health communication initiatives and their impact on individual and community health outcomes. How to use advanced qualitative and quantitative research methods to inform, develop, assess, and improve health communication initiatives, including public health campaigns and other programming.
- Family Communication: Family communication processes and relational dynamics, and how they connect to issues in individual and community health. Students examine how family members’ communication impacts health behavior, and investigate different family relationships, from spousal and sibling relationships to intergenerational relationships. How different families cope with illness, substance abuse, and other health-related issues. Students also learn how to identify health issues within a family context and address these issues through communication strategies.
- Patient-Provider Communication: The social interactions within health care settings that are instrumental in the improvement and maintenance of patients’ health, including patients’ communications with physicians, nurses, social workers and therapists, and other members of their care team. This course also covers the non-professional health care providers, such as family and friends, and their role in disease management and mitigation.
- Health Care Marketing: How to apply contemporary marketing principles and tools to health care products, services, and initiatives. Students learn how to develop effective marketing strategies for both non-profit and for-profit organizations within the health care industry, using various technologies, data analyses, and management practices.
Example Curricula for Master’s in Health Communication versus MPH Programs
The following table contains a comparison of sample curricula for an MPH program versus a Master’s in Health Communication program. Students should research actual programs to ensure the curricula for their programs of interest meet their personal and professional goals.
Choosing Between an MPH and a Master’s in Health Communication Program
Both the Master of Public Health and the Master’s in Health Communication empower students to improve health outcomes for individuals and communities through research-informed strategies. Whether to choose one over the other depends on one’s academic strengths and the type of work one wants to do post-graduation.
Students who are interested in designing more comprehensive public health programs that are not centered solely on communication might find the MPH to be a better fit for their goals. For example, if a student is interested in creating and implementing a comprehensive drug intervention program, revising policies around reproductive health, investigating the negative health effects of certain chemicals on children, or setting up a nutrition education and accessibility program at a local school, a graduate degree in public health might better prepare them for the interdisciplinary responsibilities such initiatives require. Students who are comfortable with and interested in advanced human biology, biostatistics, and other science-oriented classes might also find the MPH is a better fit for them, relative to the master’s in health communication.
On the other hand, students whose primary interest in the health field is how to motivate behavior change in patients and the community through effective messaging might find the master’s in health communication to be a better fit. Effective health communication is an essential aspect of any public health initiative, and therefore people who have a master’s in health communication can work with public health professionals across a wide variety of contexts to design and optimize health programs. In addition, students who are interested in researching the specific dynamics that impact health outcomes—from family communication dynamics to the efficacy of nationwide health education programs—may find graduate programs in health communication more ideal.
Finally, students who want to work specifically in the marketing and/or public relations sectors of health communication (for example, individuals who want to work in the public relations department of hospitals or as a marketing specialist for a private health services firm) would typically pursue a master’s in health communication, relative to an MPH. There are master’s in health communication programs that offer concentrations or specializations in marketing or public relations, while MPH programs typically do not offer such specializations.
For students who want to receive the interdisciplinary training that an MPH provides, while also focusing specifically on health communication’s role in public health, there are also MPH programs that offer a specialization in Health Communication. In these programs, students complete an MPH core and concentration or elective courses in Health Communication. However, for students who want advanced and specialized training in health communication, a Master of Health Communication is probably a better option, as the curricula and elective options are typically more extensive and allow for such specialization. Students in an MPH program with a Health Communication specialization may complete four to six courses in health communication, whereas students in a master’s in health communication program may be able to complete 10-12 courses in the field.