About Elissa Foster, Ph.D.: Elissa Foster is a Professor and the Graduate Program Director for the Master of Arts in Health Communication program at DePaul University’s College of Communication. As Director, she helped to design the program’s curriculum, and serves as students’ primary advisor throughout the program. She also supports faculty and oversees recruitment and admissions. As a Professor, Dr. Foster teaches the introductory course in health communication, and conducts research in the areas of patient-provider communication, interpersonal and family communication, and discourse and dynamics relating to maternity and feminism. She is also the author of the book Communicating at the End of Life: Finding Magic in the Mundane. Her research on health communication focusing on end of life care earned her the 2007 Janice Hocker Rushing Early Career Research Award from the Southern States Communication Association.

Prior to her position at DePaul, Dr. Foster served as the Director of Education and Program Evaluation at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s (LVHN) Department of Family Medicine. In this role, she spearheaded and oversaw the design and implementation of multiple educational initiatives for health care professionals. She was the recipient of the 2012 Asclepius Award for Excellence in Teaching in Family Medicine from the residents at LVHN. Dr. Foster also has held academic positions at both San Jose State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Dr. Foster earned her Bachelor of Arts in Drama from Queensland University of Technology, her Master of Arts in Communication (Organizational and Interpersonal) from the University of Memphis, and her Ph.D. in Interpersonal and Health Communication from the University of South Florida.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the Master of Arts in Health Communication program at DePaul University, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum and electives, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Foster] One of the key strengths of our Master of Arts in Health Communication is that we advocate for a critical perspective in the way we approach all of our work. We apply both timeless and cutting-edge research methods and theories to the field of health communication, and seek to help our students understand how health communication intersects not only with public health and the medical field, but also politics, the economy, and society/culture. Students also examine how health communication works in tandem with other forms of communication, from organizational communication to mass and intercultural communication.

Students take 48 credit-hours, comprised of four core classes and eight electives. Two of their elective courses can be from outside of the program, if students want to take classes in other colleges or departments.

The core courses are:

  • Foundations in Graduate Communication Studies orients students to the graduate school experience and gives them an overview of basic research and writing skills that will help them throughout the program.
  • Introduction to Health Communication introduces students to the field of health communication and how it intersects with other areas such as politics, consumer decision-making and psychology, the economy, health outcomes in medical settings and in society at large, and local and national responses to crises. Students examine the different participants in health care communication dynamics, including health care consumers, health care providers, and organizations.
  • Communication, Health Disparities, and Culture examine the role that health communication, health literacy, and consumer health campaigns have in addressing health disparities across different demographics. The cultural differences that facilitate and impede adherence to medical and health care plans, and how to address them. This class prepares students to address one of the principal issues in the health care system today, which is the relationship between health literacy and healthcare accessibility.
  • Research Methods for Health Care Practitioners explores the key research methodologies that are relevant to health care providers and administrators, such as the design and implementation of surveys, interviewing techniques, gathering and analyzing survey data, and presenting findings and their implications to a variety of audiences. Students also learn important clinical and biomedical research methods and how to translate findings from these studies into informative and actionable content.

After these four core courses, students can choose from our elective offerings, which are quite varied, giving students a lot of options in terms of the skills and knowledge they obtain to further their careers. We have classes on health care narratives, writing for community health campaigns, health care marketing, designing and implementing interventions as health care administrators, public relations for health care environments, crisis communication management, and the relationship between social constructs and culture and health care issues/outcomes.

We also allow students to take courses from different colleges at DePaul if they are relevant to their career goals in health communication. For example, we have several electives that are cross-listed with organizational communication, public relations, and advertising, and students can take these courses if they want to build stronger skills in these areas and apply them to health care-related settings. We also have students who are taking classes from the College of Business, which we feel are highly relevant because business principles and practices are central to health care delivery, patient experiences, and effective patient-provider communication. DePaul also has a master’s in public health program and a master’s in public service program, and students will sometimes take one or more courses in public health or health policy.

I serve as the principal advisor for students as they progress through the program; oftentimes students take a wider selection of electives in their first year, determine what really piques their interest, and narrow their focus through more specialized courses in their second year. Students also benefit from the guidance of Karin Winters who is the Assistant Director of Graduate Student Services within the College of Communication, and she works closely with all program directors in the college, and also meets with students to discuss their plan for their degree and the courses that are available to them in a given term so that they can craft a strong program of study.

Our students come from a variety of backgrounds, from health care providers and administrators to communication professionals who want to move into public health and community health campaigns. All of our students want to find ways to improve patient care quality or patient experiences, through different avenues—whether it is through marketing and educational materials that promote an important health-related service, or through improving patient-provider interactions or the efficiency of organizational communication within a medical center. Our students graduate and work at hospitals, health-related startups, media outlets, community health centers, government, and large medical associations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Cancer Institute.

Health Communication is really an emerging field; patient care quality departments have been around for forever, but it has only been in the last 10-15 years that people have started turning from simply looking at clinical measures to also looking at the relationship between health communication in all its forms and the health and longevity of patients and consumers. Doctors, nurses, and health care administrators have started to look at, for example, “Do all geriatric patients have their flu shots up to date? Why or why not, and what role did communication play in their adherence or lack thereof? Are we doing colorectal cancer screenings for all patients over 50? Why or why not? Did all patients suffering from staph infections receive the right dose of antibiotic? What organizational flows of communication within the medical center ensured or hindered accurate diagnoses and dosages?” The questions one can ask in health communication are endless and you can always delve a little deeper in order to find insights that can lead to significant health improvements.

In their classes, many of our students also look at the patient experience in medical settings, from their first point of contact to their discharge. How does the patient interact with the health care institution, and how can we improve those interactions, from the making of appointments, to the relaying of information to their doctor/nurse, to understanding the importance of certain health care directives. When it comes to questions around how patients experienced their care, communication is key.

In the case of students who work for organizations such as the American Medical Association and the National Cancer Institute, they are concerned with how to create content for and manage important communications with different stakeholders. How to research, for example, pediatric and adolescent cancer patients and how to access this population with important information and support. They learn how to develop educational materials such as website content and publications that are useful to target populations as well as the general public.

While our program is highly applied in nature, with classes that focus on skills and methods that students can use in their careers immediately, we have had several students who have gone on to doctoral studies in health communication or closely related fields. As our program does not require a thesis, we advise students who are interested in this route to get involved in research with faculty members in our college, and to develop shorter pieces of research for publication and presentation. As their advisor, I encourage them to identify as early on as possible in their tenure at DePaul whether they want to go into a doctoral program, so that they can begin planning for it and forming important connections with faculty with whom they might wish to do research. Students can take an independent study course so that their work with a professor counts for credit, or they can obtain a research assistantship.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students in this program complete a comprehensive examination. Could you please elaborate on the components of this examination, and the steps students must complete to prepare for and pass it?

[Dr. Foster] We recently redesigned our comprehensive examination requirement. Previously, we had students answer three questions, which is a general standard for comprehensive exams for graduate communication programs. They consulted with their advisor, established a committee, and answered one question on theory, one question on methods, and one question that pertained to their specific area of specialization in health communication application.

We came to feel that this comprehensive examination experience really prompted students to focus on a narrow section of what they had learned in the program overall, and what we really wanted to help them achieve is a reflection and integration of what they had learned and done throughout their program of study. So we changed the requirement so that it is essentially a more comprehensive series of questions that students answer in a single essay that is a reflection on their experience in the program, their learning outcomes, and their aspirations post-graduation. In their essay, they must indicate the classes, readings, theories, and applications of those theories that they anticipate using in their next steps once they graduate.

This essay is meant to be an articulation of all the tools that they are leaving with. We found that when students answered separate questions on theory, research and application, they ended up writing primarily from a specific class they’d taken with this one professor, rather than thinking about their entire experience of their program, how all those pieces fit together, and then how communication, theory, and research would support them in their goals and interests. This new comprehensive examination option is another aspect of our program that I feel is unique, because it is grounded in reflective practice, and personalization.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Health Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?

[Dr. Foster] In terms of formal mentorship, all students sit down with me at the beginning of the program. I work with them to establish their course of study, and to modify it as they need throughout their time in the program. I communicate with them regularly and connect them with resources both within and outside of the University. We have a fantastic alumni group, and as soon as students join the Health Comm program we connect them to our Facebook alumni group. I often try to connect current and former students, especially if my current student is interested in following a similar pathway as an alumni I know. Alumni have a very current understanding of the job market and what skills are required, and are an excellent resource.

In addition to the guidance that I provide and the mentorship that Karin Winters provides, many of our students find mentors through the courses they take. For example, Dr. Baglia teaches the class on Health Literacy, Culture, and Communication, and some students gravitate towards him and his research interests and therefore seek mentoring from him. We also have Dr. Knight who teaches quantitative methods and students who are interested in advanced quantitative methods often meet with and consult with her. And we have other faculty members who specialize in public relations and advertising, health campaigns, and community action work, whom students can consult for advice, connections, and support. All of the folks who teach in health communication are highly engaged, accessible, passionate professors, and mentoring graduate students is a natural extension of that. A lot of our students work full-time, and so sometimes our faculty members will meet with them over Skype in the evening—we work hard to accommodate our students’ needs.

Additionally, the College of Communication has a full-time internship director, Graciela Kenig, and I work quite closely with Graciela on making sure that we find internships in the health field that are appropriate for our graduate students. I also help students set up internships directly, by connecting them with the relevant parties when I hear of good opportunities. For example, one of my students was a dietician, and she came to our program because she was interested in learning about health promotion. She was interested in an internship, and I happened to be working very closely with a faculty member in the College of Education who knew the director of a school-based nutrition program called, “Purple Asparagus.” I asked my colleague for the contact information of the director, contacted him directly, and introduced him to my student. And my student was able to work with this program for a term, teaching nutrition to students in under-resourced schools in Chicago. Whenever I can make that type of thing happen, I do my best to do so.

Our student body also serves as an incredible support system. Current students help each other, and our alumni are eager to connect with new students and connect them with job and internship opportunities. I think part of what makes the closeness of our community possible is the fact that we keep our program fairly small—about 15 active graduate students in health communication, with about 50 graduates so far, which makes it easy to keep track of how each student is doing, and it makes it much easier for strong and lasting relationships to form. Students take classes together in fairly small groups, and because they are so passionate about being in and improving healthcare from different perspectives, they create a unique culture where everyone bonds, wants to support one another, and shares the same mission. We also have a robust Writing Center where students can workshop their writing and receive help with editing their papers.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for the Master of Arts in Health Communication program?

[Dr. Foster] As we are a rigorous academic program, we look first and foremost for academic qualifications, and seek students with a strong academic record. We have a preferred GPA requirement of 3.0 or higher. While we do not require the GRE, students are welcome to submit GRE scores to strengthen their application.

We also want to see students who have an idea of what they want to do with this degree. The most compelling applications are those from people who have had a certain amount of experience in their branch of industry, and who can articulate how an advanced degree in communication will help them take their next step. Writing skills are key in our program, and so students should take care to demonstrate their best writing in the four essay questions that they write, which are:

  • What factors contribute to your decision to enter graduate school now?
  • How do studies in health communication relate to your personal and professional goals?
  • What demonstrates your suitability for graduate study in this program? Build an argument for your admission.
  • What understandings should admission reviewers bring to a reading of your application?

In addition to the essay questions, students must submit an academic writing sample that shows us their critical thinking skills and ability to synthesize numerous academic research concepts into one cohesive work.

In terms of the two letters of recommendation, we generally like to see academic references as we feel they are more indicative of preparedness for our program. However, if students have been out of school for a while, letters of recommendation from employers work well. I think letters of recommendation from employers are fine.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Health Communication unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Foster] Our mission to empower students with the knowledge and skills they need to make a lasting impact on the field of health communication has motivated us to design our curriculum carefully. Instead of giving students a one-dimensional skills set, we seek to give them an holistic understanding of important paradigms in the field, and to have them think about issues of power, social structures, and how they relate to human communication dynamics and then to population health. We feel this broader, deeper understanding enables students to achieve precisely what they want to achieve: improving human health outcomes by understanding the origins of some of our most persistent health challenges, and addressing them through targeted health campaigns and other forms of communication. Identifying those root causes, such as lack of access to affordable care, or low health literacy, allows our students to be more far-sighted and strategic, making them more effective in their future careers.

As mentioned previously, our student community is also part of what makes our program so special. Students have a sense of social justice and seek a career that is not just about fitting into someone else’s agenda, but rather contributing to a mission that improves the health of individuals, communities, and ultimately the nation. This focus on improving the world makes for students who are positive, inquisitive, and mutually supportive.

Thank you, Dr. Foster, for your excellent insight into DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Health Communication program!