The CDC and the National Cancer Institute define health communication as “the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence individual decisions that enhance health.”
The field of health communication can be understood as a bridge between specialists and the general public, and is very practical in nature. It draws on studies in public health and medicine as a foundation for the information being provided, as well as psychology and sociology as a way of understanding how individuals and groups are influenced by information.
More than any specialty in the field of communication, the direct goal of health communication is for people to take action. It prepares the public with skills, tools, and information so they are able to respond appropriately to health and risk issues, whether personal (e.g. better nutrition or self-care for mental health challenges), community (e.g. hazardous chemical spills or hurricane preparation), or international (e.g. pandemic disease or refugee physical and mental health issues).
Health communication is also the niche most influenced by government and professional working groups to ensure practitioners in the field are working toward common goals, be they statewide, national, or international.
History of Health Communication
The need to communicate about health and safety issues may be an innate skill. Mammals communicate with their offspring and one another about what foods are safe to eat or what areas are not safe to enter. Ancient humans taught one another safe cooking skills, how to treat wounds, and how to diagnose illnesses. All forms of health communication.
As we moved from pre-history into written history, there are many examples of individuals who were the precursors to health communication specialists:
- Hippocrates (4th century BC): wrote about the causal relationship between human diseases and the environment; it was the basis for understanding communicable disease until the 19th century.
- John Graunt (1662): developed and compiled census statistics for the causes and number of deaths by examining local records; he was also one of the founders of the field of epidemiology.
- John Pringle (mid 1700s): was a military physician who studied and wrote about typhus, ventilation in army barracks, and provisions of latrines.
- James Lind (1753): a surgeon in the British Navy who studied and wrote about scurvy from lack of vitamin C for sailors.
- Thomas Malthus (1798): studied and wrote about population growth and food supply.
Modern health communication began at the same time as the modern public health field, in the late 1800s, as the need arose to communicate health information from government and charitable organizations to a larger and more urban society. Some of the people who spearheaded these initiatives were:
- Thomas Southwood Smith (1848): provided reports on the effectiveness of quarantine for cholera and yellow fever.
- Florence Nightingale (1853): initiated organized training for nurses in the Crimean War; she was also a pioneer in graphical representation of statistics.
- Jane Addams (1900): founded settlement houses in the U.S. which provided food, shelter, education, and health instruction.
- Clara Barton (1881): founded the American Red Cross after the Civil War and ran the Missing Soldiers office to locate, identify, and bury 13,000 soldiers who died in Andersonville prison camp and notified their families.
- Margaret Sanger (1921): provided education on birth control and family planning.
The Four Types of Health Communication
Since its inception dating back to ancient society up to the modern day, health communication has integrated itself into multiple areas of our society. While the field has many facets, there are in general four types of contemporary health communication: health promotion, patient-provider-family caregiver interactions, health care interventions, and health communication technology.
Health Promotion: Health promotion is defined as the design and development of health campaigns aimed at reaching certain audiences and communicating important health information. This type of health communication often employs strategies from mass communication, marketing communication, and strategic communication, among other disciplines. Individuals who work in health promotions focus on creating effective messaging that motivates positive behavior changes in patients and the public. Key questions that people in this field may ask include, “How do we motivate parents to give their children important vaccines? How do we encourage safe sex practices amongst youth? For cancer patients, what kinds of informational materials would benefit them and their families?”
Patient-Provider-Family Caregiver Communication: The communications between a patient and his or her health care team and family are an essential part of a patient’s overall health care experience and well-being. Effective and empathetic communication between doctors and nurses and their patients have been the subject of recent and growing study, in an effort to improve quality of care and patient outcomes. In this area of health communication, interpersonal communication, family communication, and organizational communication and team dynamics play prominent roles. When considering this form of communication, health care providers and family caregivers may ask questions such as, “What kinds of interpersonal communication styles are most effective in certain patient situations? How can I frame important messages and health care directives in a way that engages patients in their own care?”
Health Care Interventions: The field of health care interventions combines patient-provider-family caregiver communication and health promotion, in that it entails developing educational content and/or behavior change programming that focuses on changing a specific health care behavior or addressing a specific health care need. For example, some health care interventions combine the production of educational pamphlets and online content with group discussions and motivational interviewing sessions between patients and professionals. Individuals who work in health care interventions may ask questions such as, “What are the health challenges we are trying to solve, and what gaps in information are bringing about these challenges? How can we educate our target demographics and also use communication to support positive change?”
Health Communication Technologies: Health communication technology encompasses not only health care services that use communication technology, such as mobile health applications and Telehealth services, but also the information technologies that help health care organizations run more efficiently and effectively, such as electronic medical records. Health communication technology can support everything from patient-provider interactions to health care promotions and interventions, by streamlining the communication process between health care experts and the public, between patients and their health care team, and between medical professionals.
Health Communication Products and Tasks
Health communication specialists have a variety of choices in terms of where they will spend their time and energy. The products and tasks they use often depend on their place of employment and specific position/responsibilities. These can include physical products, direct care, or data gathering and analysis.
Physical/Electronic Products: Most health communication products are related to specific campaigns and thus are coordinated with other products. For example, a public health campaign for cigarette smoking will include products that are targeted toward different age groups from children to the elderly, and different populations such as current smokers and those who have not yet begun to smoke. Agencies and organizations might create physical products such as brochures, flyers, and booklets; electronic products such as websites and social media accounts; or mass market products such as billboards and public transportation advertisements.
In summary, health communication products can include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Brochures, flyers, booklets/pamphlets, websites, social media accounts, billboards, public transportation advertisements, presentations, press releases, educational materials, training materials, marketing materials, public service announcements, television and radio advertisements, and more.
Direct Care: Those who work directly with the public often produce not only physical products, but also presentations, press releases, and training materials. They typically work directly with various stakeholders in their community in identifying needs and ways to address those needs. Others may work one-on-one with clients to deliver information or personal training, as well as advocate for their care in various agencies or organizations.
Data Gathering and Analysis: The creation of surveys to understand attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and perceptions assist practitioners in developing certain health communication products before a campaign, as well as testing their effectiveness afterwards. In addition, these surveys and analyses also help guide medical practitioners appraise and improve patient care. Another aspect of working with data includes the integration of technology and health care, especially with the advent of supercomputer capabilities. Some practitioners work with the collection and analysis of data regarding the effectiveness of treatments, hospitals, or practitioners, as well as packaging this information in ways that are both informative and actionable.
Required Skills in Health Communication
Serving as a bridge between specialists and the general public, the primary skill for a health communication practitioner is the ability to easily translate complex sets of information into products that are simple, easy to understand, and easy to take action on. This includes the ability to learn quickly and thoroughly, to know what is essential to the particular goal, and to analyze and integrate data.
Health communication is a team-oriented field and so the ability to work well with others is a must, whether its creating strategies based on successful campaigns or keeping up-to-date in the field to learn what new methods are being used. Team work also includes the ability to listen and learn from subject matter experts such as doctors, researchers, and epidemiologists, and to speak and write in plain language. Using this clear and simple language allows the information to be translated from the primary source to others for widespread dissemination.
Since the end goal of health communication is to encourage people to take action, the health communication practitioner must be familiar with many technical communication skills, such as writing, document design, editing, and social media strategies. You can find more information about these practical skills in our Guide to Technical Communication.
Careers in Health Communication
Health communication specialists can be found in a wide variety of employment sectors, including:
- Advertising, public relations, and marketing firms
- Biotechnology companies
- Charitable foundations
- Educational institutions
- Government departments, including local, state, and federal
- Health insurance companies
- Hospitals and medical practices
- Large employers with an internal health and wellness program
- Medical device manufacturers
- Nonprofit advocacy organizations
- Pharmaceutical manufacturers
- Public health and regulatory agencies, including state, national, and international
- Publishing companies
- Research organizations
A quick survey of recent job postings for health communication included titles such as:
- Community Relations Specialist
- Digital Content Strategist
- Director of Health Education & Communication
- Environmental Health & Pandemic Specialist
- Health Insurance Specialist
- Health Literacy Educator
- Knowledge Center Manager
- Medical Editor
- Nutrition Communication Specialist
- Outreach Coordinator
- Patient Engagement Specialist
- Patient Safety Leader
- Preparedness & Catastrophic Response
- Prevention Coordinator
- Quality Manager
- Risk Manager
- Senior Health Writer
- User Experience Designer
Whether your interest is in direct patient communication, creating products and campaigns, or using information technology, there are a wide range of opportunities in health communication.
Training in Health Communication
The need for focused communication regarding public health issues increased in the early 1990s due to national situations such as the AIDS crisis, the revelation of the harmful effects of tobacco, and the rise in obesity in adults and children. The first undergraduate classes in health communication were offered in 1995, along with the first two master’s programs in the field at Tufts University and Emerson College (Kreps, 1998). In 2007, George Mason University was the first to offer a Ph.D. in the concentration. Since then, the field has blossomed and there are many programs around the U.S. that specialize in health communication.
Health communication programs are offered at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. In addition, there are certificate programs available to students looking to learn new skills. At the bachelor’s and master’s level, programs typically focus on communication theory and applied skill development. However, some master’s programs, and most doctoral programs, focus on health communication research. In these types of programs, students study social sciences and may explore how health messaging is delivered and received by various demographics, including different races, age groups, educational backgrounds, and more.
Bachelor’s in Health Communication
Colleges and universities around the country offer both on-campus and online bachelor’s programs in health communication. A bachelor’s degree requires general education credits, major credits, and elective credits. While specific classes will depend on the particular school, you can anticipate many similarities.
Classes in the heath communication major typically include general communication skills such as effective writing, intercultural communication, mass communication, presentations, public relations, and rhetoric. In addition, there are specific health-focused classes, which could include community health, environmental health, epidemiology, health behavior, healthcare delivery, medical terminology, public health policy, research methods, risk communication, and trends in the field.
Certificate Programs in Health Communication
A number of institutions also offer certification programs in the field. For example, the Department of Communication at the University of Kentucky offers a certificate in health communication to undergraduate students in conjunction with the School of Public Health and the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. The University of South Carolina offers an interdisciplinary post-baccalaureate certificate through their College of Information and Communications and Arnold School of Public Health. Tufts University and Lasell College both also offer certificates in health communication aimed at working professionals. All these certificate programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission.
Master’s in Health Communication
Master’s programs for health communication in the U.S. are mainly Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) degrees in communication with a concentration/specialization in health communication. There are currently 67 schools in the country with master’s in communication programs that allow students to specialize in health communication. Of those 67, eight schools currently offer a master’s degree specifically in health communication: Boston University, Chapman University, DePaul University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Tufts University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Also, it is also not uncommon for master’s in communication programs to offer electives in health communication, even if they do not offer a specific specialization.
While most master’s in health communication programs can be found in communication departments of colleges and universities, there is also a new trend for Schools of Public Health to offer specific concentrations in health communication, often in collaboration with other departments at the school.
For more information on master’s degree programs in health communication, please visit our Master’s in Health Communication page that contains a comprehensive directory of both campus and online programs that have been researched by MastersinCommunications.com.
Ph.D. in Health Communication
While many students enter the field of health communication with a desire to become practitioners in one of the many sectors of this broad and growing field, others may be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. program and conducting advanced research in a particular area of health communication, such as health campaign effectiveness, social behavior, or health communication strategies. Ph.D. programs in communication typically do not have as many specialization options as master’s programs, as students usually apply to programs with faculty who have expertise in the area where they plan to do research. Therefore, students interested in pursuing doctoral studies in health communication should look for schools with faculty members doing research in the field. Finally, while most Ph.D. programs in communication require a master’s for admission, some schools do offer bachelor’s to Ph.D. programs.
Advice for Students Considering a Career in Health Communication
The need for professionals specializing in health communication is growing rapidly as we face new challenges such as drug resistant diseases and infections, environmental hazards, the opioid epidemic, and the spread of infectious diseases from mass migration due to war. In addition, our familiar challenges remain — how do we encourage patient compliance with medical advice, inform consumers about health insurance choices, educate families on the benefits of immunization for infants, or teach children to wash their hands to prevent colds?
Students interested in health communication should take time to explore the many options available to them. Along with reviewing academic programs, they should be sure to look into different organizations that support health communication to see what sparks their curiosity. Here are a few such organizations and conferences:
- Academy of Communication in Healthcare
- National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing & Media
- DC Health Communication Conference
- Health Communication and Informatics Research
- International Association for Communication in Healthcare
- Kentucky Conference on Health Communication
Lifelong Learning in the Field of Health Communication
Due to the rapidly changing landscape of health care and information exchange, the health communication practitioner should be prepared to engage in lifelong learning. One way to do this is through joining professional organizations and attending conferences. In addition to workshops and training, they also provide professional journals and publications. As a field that depends on collaboration and the sharing of new information, becoming part of a network of professionals in your niche and attending relevant conferences will be of great benefit.
Professional Organizations in Health Communication and Related Fields
- American Academy on Communication in Healthcare
- American Medical Writers Association
- CDC: National Center for Health Communication & Social Marketing
- Centers of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research
- Coalition for Health Communication
- International Communication Association (ICA) Health Comm Division
- National Association of Science Writers
- National Communication Association (NCA)
- Professional Association for Design (AIGA)
- Society for Participatory Medicine
- Society for Technical Communication (STC)
- Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA)
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. cdc.gov
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice.” https://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/healthbasics/WhatIsHC.html (accessed June 23, 1018)
- Kreps, Gary L. et. Al. (1998) “History and Development of the Field of Health Communication” in LD Jackson and BK Duffy (Eds) Health Communication Research: Guide to Developments and Directions, Westport CT Greenwood Press, 1-15.