15 Terms to Know in Health Communication

Today’s consumers have access to a seemingly endless array of news sources across a multitude of channels. More information should be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. The proliferation of unreliable media reports has made it more difficult than ever to separate fact from fiction. You might think that blatantly false, hyperpartisan stories could be easily discredited, but some experts believe that bombarding consumers with even the most fantastic stories might have the opposite effect.

Fake news, however, is just one factor that can distort people’s understanding of their health and the health of their communities. It’s no surprise that communication related to health matters — health communication — plays a vital role in maintaining our health and well-being. Although health communication professionals aren’t necessarily members of the media, they do play an important role in developing the tools, resources and initiatives designed to counter everything from media bias — such as a fear-mongering tone in coverage of the Ebola outbreaks — to lackluster health education resources.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute, health communication utilizes various communication tactics to inform and influence people’s health-related behaviors and decisions. In 2010, this topic was covered in a chapter of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People objectives for the first time, where it was shown as being significant in health promotion, disease prevention and quality of life.1 The Healthy People initiative establishes scientific, 10-year national objectives for improving Americans’ health.

The Importance of Strong Health Communication

The need for effective health communication is growing. Today, both public and private institutions are using the internet and other technologies to speed the delivery of health information. However, for people with limited reading or technical skills, this can pose a challenge. That’s why it’s so important for public health professionals to become well versed in the creation and delivery of consumer health communications.2 Those who grasp the nuances of health communication can provide a valuable service in settings ranging from private consulting firms to large governmental agencies.

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Although it is far from comprehensive, the following glossary provides a sample of words and phrases that health communication professionals encounter daily.

Adherence: Adherence refers to how much a person’s behavior aligns with their health care provider’s recommendations. This might involve taking prescribed medications, making certain lifestyle changes or following a particular diet.3 A patient’s willingness to begin and adhere to treatment recommendations is vital to their health improvement, and an individual’s inclination or ability to adhere to healthy behaviors can influence their long-term health. Factors that impact a person’s adherence include finances (e.g., ability to pay for medication), the presence or lack of physical symptoms and the quality of the patient-provider relationship.4

Advocacy: Public health advocacy describes efforts to promote positive changes that will benefit the health of a community or population. These changes might be brought about by policy or regulation changes or simply by raising awareness. In some instances, advocacy is proactive while in others it is a response to an event or issue.5 Advocacy organizations such as the American Public Health Association collaborate with key stakeholders to help create public policy that addresses today’s critical health concerns. Activities might include protecting program funding, reducing health disparities and ensuring equitable access to health care services.6

Audience: When it comes to health communication, understanding your audience — the people who will actually hear or read your message — is important. Knowing their needs, wants, habits, lifestyles and motivations enables you to tailor content accordingly and utilize channels that give you the best chance of reaching them. Targeted health communications deliver your key message more effectively and are more likely to influence behavioral change.8

Awareness: Health awareness refers to individual or community knowledge of pressing health issues, such as preventing obesity. By educating the public on a specific health topic, an awareness campaign can help promote healthier behaviors that can, in turn, improve health outcomes. For instance, in 2012, the CDC launched its “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign to raise awareness of the negative impact of smoking and secondhand smoke.9 An estimated 1.6 million smokers attempted to quit smoking following the campaign’s launch.10

Campaign: Campaigns involve focusing on a specific promotional strategy to influence knowledge, behaviors, attitudes or policy in a targeted audience. For example, a stop-smoking campaign can help reduce the negative impact of cigarette smoking by raising awareness of its risks, debunking myths and misconceptions, and promoting healthier behaviors. The success of a campaign often depends on a highly organized process that involves planning, implementation and evaluation.11

Community-centered prevention: This approach is designed to reduce the risk for common health conditions within a single community or setting (e.g., a school or neighborhood), including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Strategies for community-centered prevention might include procurement policy changes, programs and policies that address healthier behaviors, and the development and implementation of wellness initiatives. In order to be successful, these efforts must be comprehensive, integrated and tailored to meet the needs of a specific population.12 13

Cultural competence: Given the need for health care systems to manage increasingly diverse patient populations, cultural competence — or cultural respect and understanding — has become a health care priority.14 It refers to the ability of providers to deliver services that respect and acknowledge the health practices, beliefs and linguistic and cultural needs of diverse patient groups. Efforts to improve providers’ cultural competence can help reduce health disparities and make high-quality care accessible to more people.15

Disparities: In terms of health care, the word “disparities” refers to differences in the availability of or access to health care services and facilities across various populations. This is not to be confused with health status disparities, which describes differences in disease rates, deaths and suffering across various population groups. These groups may be defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other attributes.16 17

Ecological model of health: An ecological approach to health identifies various environmental factors that affect individual behavior. These variables may include the physical location, individual attitudes and beliefs, public policy, organizational or social climate, or attributes of the surrounding community Because of the complex interactions that exist within a particular environment, health interventions that address a range of variables are likely to be more successful. The ecological model can be valuable in health program planning since it can help determine the appropriate timing, focus and extent of an intervention.18 19 20

Health communication: In conjunction with health information technology — the variety of technologies used to store, share and analyze health information — health communication involves the processes used by the public and professionals to search for, comprehend and apply health information. By facilitating the meaningful exchange and use of health-related information, effective health communication can have a positive impact on health care, outcomes and equity.21

Health literacy: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, describes health literacy as a person’s ability to make smart decisions about their health by obtaining, communicating and understanding basic information about health and related services. 22 A person’s health literacy may be influenced by a variety of factors including culture, personal communication skills and knowledge of health topics. It can impact one’s ability to practice self-care and chronic disease management, choose between health insurance or drug prescription plans, or share personal health information with providers.23

Health promotion: According to the World Health Organization, health promotion is the process of empowering people to gain better control over — and consequently improve — their health. This process goes beyond individual behavior to encompass an array of social and environmental interventions.24 Health promotion programs strive to enable individuals and communities to reduce the risk of chronic and infectious diseases and other conditions by adopting healthier lifestyles. These programs frequently address the impact of social determinants of health, which include the physical environment, socieconomic factors and education.25

Intervention: This is a multifaceted integration of strategies or programs designed to improve health status or influence positive behavioral changes. Interventions can be applied to an individual or within an entire group or population (e.g., a town, workplace or school). An intervention may take the form of new policies, outreach efforts, promotional campaigns or awareness programs.26 Some examples of a community-based intervention include programs aimed at reducing high-risk drinking among certain age groups as well as initiatives that seek to overcome barriers to immunization.

Risk communication: This refers to the exchange of health risk-related information among various stakeholders, including the government, corporations, the media, scientists, unions and the public.27 Risk communication involves informing people about potential dangers (e.g., natural disasters and severe weather or threats to human health, such as disease outbreaks). Communications may be written, verbal or visual and often include tips on reducing risk. Ideally, risk communication involves a two-way dialogue.28

Social marketing: The International Social Marketing Association defines social marketing as seeking to “develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviors that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good.” This practice is based on ethical principles and uses best practices, research and other resources to design effective, sustainable social change programs.29 One example of a health care social marketing program is a campaign that promotes awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding among mothers, providers and the general public.30

Do these topics resonate with you or spark your curiosity? If so, you may want to consider a career in health communication.