School of Communication to offer new master’s in health communication

Christine Farolan, Reporter

Starting Fall Quarter, Northwestern’s School of Communication will offer a professional-level master of science degree in health communication.

This innovative program combines the science of health care and the communication necessary to efficiently engage patients. Program director and Communication Prof. Bruce Lambert said the program will focus on three major problems with health care.

“It’s too expensive,” he said. “The health of the population of the U.S. is actually not that great if you look at chronic illness, longevity and infant mortality, and the experience of care for individual patients is poor.”

Lambert said this is especially true when comparing the U.S. to other industrialized countries. These issues, he said, are interrelated, but can be solved with better communication and coordination.

“That’s where the degree comes in,” he said.

Lambert said the program was developed when Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication, recognized the need for training in health communication from both undergraduate and graduate students. After conceiving the idea for the program, she met with Lambert and Dr. Michael Wolf, a professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, to discuss opportunities.

The meeting occurred several years ago, and a conference was held at the Frances Searle Building last May. Bringing together academic, industry and government experts from across the country, the conference affirmed O’Keefe’s notion that such a program would be beneficial.

While the degree resides entirely within the School of Communication, courses will be taught by both Communication and Feinberg faculty. The coursework will take place on Saturdays over the span of a year to accommodate working professionals. Lambert said he hopes to enroll about 40 students in the program.

“We think probably the majority of students will be individuals who already hold full-time jobs in health care … and want to advance their careers in the domain of health communication,” Lambert said.

However, some students will likely apply immediately after receiving their bachelor’s degree, Lambert said.

Given the fragmented and complex nature of the health industry, the program’s curriculum emphasizes organized design, Lambert said. Health literacy is a distinct problem, so students will learn to analyze and improve each way the patients interact with the system — whether through networks, social media, advertising or other interfaces.

Weinberg sophomore Noah Whinston is a member of the Roosevelt Institute’s policy group, where he discusses a wide range of policy issues, including that of health care implementation.

“I think a program like this is important because health care is consistently getting more complex as new technologies are developed,” he said. “The ability for patients to be active participants in their own health care is predicated on the ability for health care providers to make its complexities understandable for an average person.”

Lambert said making this process as transparent as possible requires the input of varying institutions, including pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, hospitals, clinics, health insurance companies, public health organizations and even the food industry. They expect to draw students to the program who are either already working in or looking to enter these industries.

The Center for Communication and Health, which will house the program, will move into its new space on the 15th floor of Abbott Hall on the Chicago campus over the summer.

Information on the degree will be available at two open houses later this quarter. Applications for the inaugural class are currently being accepted.

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