Answer: Health communication can be defined as communication strategies used to inform and impact individual and community decisions with the goal of improving and enriching personal and community behaviors and public health practices. It includes the study of audience health attitudes and behaviors to determine the type, frequency, and format of messaging. Individuals with an education in health communication can find employment in public relations, patient education, health administration, digital and social communications, healthcare policy and advocacy, community health, health and pharmaceutical marketing, and other related fields.
Health communication is an expansive field that includes health education, risk communication, health and policy advocacy, outbreak communication, patient and provider communication, and health literacy. Health communication strategies allow doctors and nurses, community health centers, hospitals and hospital administrators, nursing homes, health educators, nonprofits, government agencies, and others to disseminate information that can positively influence personal health behaviors and choices. Health communication includes interpersonal communications, such as one-on-one meetings between a health care provider and patient, as well as community-focused communications, such as public meetings, local newspaper advertisements, pamphlets, or educational events. It also includes mass media communication, through social media, internet, television, and radio messaging to reach large audiences with information about preventative health care, disease prevention and treatment, immunizations, and more.
In addition, health communication is a scholarly field of research. Researchers in academia study how messages are created, shaped, and received within different demographic contexts, such as age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political orientation. Communication researchers may consider how interpersonal communication influences an individual’s attitudes or beliefs around medical treatment, such as immunizations. They may explore how online messaging impacts trust levels regarding medical information, or examine the ramifications of how emerging media technologies (e.g. mobile phones) are changing the methods in which people receive and share public health and medical information.
Master’s in Health Communication Programs
Master’s in health communication programs provide students with a foundational understanding of the theory behind and effective practice of health communication in medicine, public health, epidemiology, and more. These programs introduce students to organizational and interpersonal communication practices in health care settings. Students gain skills in developing and implementing effective health promotion materials and disease prevention campaigns, participate in health policy advocacy, and evaluate strategic communication initiatives.
Health communication master’s programs address communication topics across the health care system, including one-on-one patient-provider discussions, family and community communication, patient advocacy, administrative communication, health care literacy, intervention and care planning, and more. Although most programs emphasize applied learning and professional skill development in health messaging and marketing, there are programs with a broader academic and research focus that prepare students for continued studies at the doctoral level. Such programs may have classes that ask students to explore the relationship of social psychology and health behaviors, examine how social inequality influences health behaviors, or to apply the principles of risk communication in developing new approaches to local disease prevention campaigns.
For additional information about the curriculum for master’s in health communication programs, degree requirements, and sample course plans, please refer to our Master’s in Health Communications Programs page.
Careers in Health Communication
A degree in health communication can open doors to potential career paths throughout the health care industry, in areas such as public relations, social marketing, patient advocacy, health education, community health organizing, and more. Professionals with a background in health communication can pursue employment with biotechnology firms, social advocacy organizations, non-profits, hospitals and health departments, state and federal health agencies, health foundations, community health centers, and other related institutions with a health-related mission statement.
Their strong written and oral communication skills, coupled with their understanding of human psychology and behavior, qualifies them to support important public health causes, empower patients through health education initiatives, and develop marketing strategies for companies that have products or services that promote consumer well-being. Graduates of master’s programs in health communication may assume roles such as one of the following:
- Community Health Education Specialist: Health education specialists plan, develop, and implement preventative health, advocacy, and patient education initiatives. Their work involves frequent interaction with patients and health care providers. Their job also involves making connections with organizations in the community, such as schools, fitness centers, and reproductive health clinics in an effort to campaign for healthy lifestyle habits, health risk awareness, and other preventative care measures. Community health education specialists’ mission is to create educational programs for patients and the community that improve health outcomes in the short and long-term.
- Social Advocacy Strategists: Social advocacy strategists who work for health-related organizations are experts in creating media campaigns that spread the message and further the mission of the organizations that employ them. Strategists employ written web content, video, public outreach events, and social media campaigns to create and spread important health-related messages that seek to create positive behavior changes in target audiences.
- Marketing or Public Relations Specialist: Health-related companies ranging from hospitals to health insurance companies and fitness technology companies must develop sound marketing and public relations strategies. Marketing and public relations specialists at these companies wear many hats in order to uphold their company’s brand identity. Their daily work may include drafting public relations announcements in response to key company events (such as acquisitions or customer inquiries), developing marketing campaigns that combine patient/consumer education with brand promotion, and writing intra-company communications to help educate employees about their company’s mission.
- Journalists: Journalists who specialize in health-related communication write about the health care system, the accessibility and quality of patient care, and the environmental and socioeconomic factors that affect the health of different demographic groups. Their goal is to spread awareness of issues relating to health, in order to empower their readers with the knowledge to better care for themselves and their families. Journalists in this field may also write articles and opinion pieces advocating for positive changes in the health care system and/or in government regulations that affect community health.
- College Professor: In four-year public and private universities and colleges, professors conduct original research in health communication topics, teach graduate and undergraduate courses, write journal articles, present at conferences, and serve on committees. Their work focuses on advancing scholarship in health communication and preparing the next generation of communication professionals and scholars in the field. Graduates may also explore teaching positions in community and junior colleges.