Answer: Health communication is defined as communication methods and strategies used to inform individuals about health care facts and best practices, with the aim of improving patient health outcomes and enriching personal and community behaviors and public health practices. It includes the study of audience health attitudes and behaviors to determine the ideal type, frequency, and format of messaging; the use of rhetorical principles in effective message creation; and an understanding of important health concepts and how to translate them for audiences. 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 parameters, such as age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/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.

Bachelor’s in Health Communication Programs (Health Communication Major)

As health communication is a rapidly expanding field that will maintain its relevance in the years to come, it has also become a field of interest for undergraduate students seeking a viable and impactful career path. For such students, there are numerous options to earn their bachelor’s in health communication. Institutions of higher education are increasingly offering health communication either as an area of focus within an existing communication undergraduate major, or as a major in its own right.

Courses that comprise bachelor’s degrees in health communication cover topics such as research methods in communication, essential theories of communication, health communication across the lifespan, interpersonal health communication, health campaign development, mass communication and media, and the intersection of communication technologies and health education. Some bachelor’s in health communication programs also require students to take interdisciplinary courses in areas such as health policy, psychology, healthcare management, cross-cultural communication, social equality and justice in the healthcare space, environmental communication, and organizational communication.

Some baccalaureate programs in health communication also require students to complete a capstone project relating to their interests in health communication, and/or internship in a setting that is related to health communication. Depending on the program, students who are required to complete a health communication-focused capstone project may work with a community partner to develop a health campaign or an interpersonal or organizational health communication plan.

Master’s in Health Communication Programs

Master’s in health communication programs provide students with an advanced understanding of the theory behind and effective practice of health communication in medicine, public health, epidemiology, health care marketing, and more. 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, health care literacy, intervention and care planning, public health campaigns, and the role of marketing and social media in consumers’ health behaviors.

While there are dedicated master’s in health communication programs, many schools offer specializations, concentrations or tracks in health communication as part of a broader master’s in communication program. Examples of master’s in health communication programs include but are not limited to:

  • Master of Arts or Master of Science in Health Communication
  • M.A. in Health Communication and Promotion
  • M.A. in Communication with a Concentration in Health Communication
  • M.A. in Applied Communication with a Health Communication Track
  • Master of Communication Management with an Area of Focus in Health & Social Change Communication
  • M.A. in Communication Studies with a Track in Interpersonal & Health Communication
  • M.A. in Organizational Communication with a Concentration in Health Communication
  • M.S. in Integrated Marketing Communications with a Specialization in Healthcare Communication
  • M.A. in Strategic Communication with a Track in Health Communication

The curricula for a master’s in health communication program will vary depending on its specific area of focus within the broader health communication space. For example, a master’s in marketing communication with a focus on health communication will typically have courses in mass communication, social media and audience analytics alongside courses in health communication theory and research. On the other hand, a master’s in strategic health communication may have courses covering how to design health promotion materials and disease prevention campaigns, participate in health policy advocacy, and evaluate strategic communication initiatives, while a master’s in organizational communication might focus on individual and group communication strategies in healthcare contexts.

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 bachelor’s and/or master’s 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, pharmaceutical companies, medical research facilities, and health and wellness-related businesses.

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.

Note: The educational requirements for jobs in the health communication space vary due to a number of factors, including the organization’s expectations, as well as applicants’ relevant professional experience. While many health communication roles may formally accept applications from both bachelor’s and master’s in health communication graduates, a graduate degree in health communication may give an applicant a competitive edge, particularly for more advanced or strategic roles. Nevertheless, some employers may view a candidate with many years of relevant professional experience as being just as competitive as a candidate possessing a master’s degree in the field.

Due to the variance in employer expectations for applicants seeking jobs in health communication, candidates should always conduct thorough research of their desired jobs, as well as the industry’s expectations as a whole. Moreover, while a master’s degree might not be a requirement for a health communication position in industry, a master’s degree is considered the minimum requirement for candidates seeking positions in health communication research and pedagogy, particularly at the higher education level.