Friday, March 21, 2014

Expert Insight: Dr. Marian Huhman on Health Communication Research--A Vital Part of Health Care Reform

As a health communication scholar, I have to say, we live in interesting times. I am writing this essay just days before the deadline to enroll in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  This huge undertaking by states and the federal government has implications for all of us health communicators and those implications drive my answer to two of the questions that Elaine Hsieh asked me to address in this essay—what are my areas of interest and what do I see as exciting future directions for my areas of study?

Right now I am working with colleagues across our UIUC campus on a project that taps my interest in social marketing and public health communication by studying Illinois community college students’ enrollment in the ACA.  As most of you know, for the ACA to work as planned, enrollment of large numbers of young adults is needed to balance the higher costs of insuring older adults. Achieving a balanced risk pool will help make the insurance market appealing to insurers and keep premiums from having to rise steeply. We are surveying Illinois community college students for their motivators and barriers to enrollment, focusing especially on students in rural areas.  At the same time, I am using the Health Belief Model to analyze news coverage about the ACA that could be influencing young adults’ beliefs and enrollment behavior.   The data from these two studies, plus some other audience research, will inform a social marketing campaign aimed at  increasing young adults’ enrollment during the fall 2014 enrollment period. 

The beauty of this project is that it hits all the buttons that make health communication so much fun and so meaningful.  First, in social marketing, our bottom line is behavior change and enrolling in the health exchange is a clear-cut behavior.  Outcome evaluation will be determined by the state enrollment numbers.  Even though we won’t be able to claim an uptick in enrollment is solely due to our efforts, we plan to build in some measures we can track.  Second, designing effective messages and implementing a campaign is ever-challenging, but always fun!  Third, facilitating the success of the ACA is meaningful work that will make a difference to young and old alike who need health insurance, but may not have the knowledge, confidence, or trust to enroll. We hope the discoveries we make will have application to other states.

More or less on the opposite end from public health communication, I am studying interpersonal health communication in a hospital setting, specifically how communication and information technology affect nurses’ interactions with patients.  We used  semi-structured interviews with nurses to probe communication challenges that nurses face—from managing the use of mobile technology in health care to adapting to electronic health records (EHR) as the standard documentation method for all levels of health care. 

Elaine’s third request to me was to reflect a bit on important findings of my work.  From my time at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I learned the powerful role of prevention for improving lives and saving health care dollars.  I learned that social marketing and health campaigns can move the needle on important behaviors like physical activity in small positive increments, but across large parts of the population.  I am seeing that as a health communication scientist, my research with nurses has implications for the training of nurses and other providers of patient care.  We are finding that nurses vary in the type of message design logic they use to negotiate the omnipresence of the bedside computer when also interacting with the patient.           

Circling back around to the ACA again, new models of care delivery, such as ‘medical homes’ will challenge health care teams to communicate in new ways, perhaps more collaboratively, and hopefully improving health outcomes while also increasing patient and provider satisfaction. Our work with young adults addresses indirectly the health disparities that continue to plague the American system of health care. And once again, helping providers and patients navigate the tsunami of technology in health care will be a critical area of research and practice in the years ahead. Indeed, these are interesting times for health communicators!

Department of Communication
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Marian Huhman joined the faculty of University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, Department of Communication in January 2009 after eight years as a researcher and evaluator of health campaigns at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.   During her time at the CDC, she led the outcome evaluation of the VERB campaign.  She has published over 20 papers about the VERB campaign.



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