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Health Communication: how could it help in the current situation?

05 June 2020

Health Communication: an overview

Health Communication as a subject of academic teaching and research has a long tradition in the U.S. at the Medical Schools, foremost at institutions such as Harvard University or Johns Hopkins University, which has recently gained new public attention and recognition as it provides the world with daily statistics about the victims of the coronavirus pandemic of the spring of 2020

Currently health communication is helpful in many respects, and everybody working in the field can easily understand why. 


Covid-19 presents an incomparable challenge for Europeans, and we are in the mid of a process to learn how to handle such a pandemic outbreak. Think about how numbers (often wrongly) were and still are communicated in a misleading way that disregards, for example, the simple truth that number of infections needs to be related to the number of tests administered.

Or think about the public debate on which measures against the spread of the virus is the most  beneficial. We are not just fighting against Covid, it has become a fight against false information also. Losing such fight leads to disinformation, as well as to a major confusion of people. Other subjects that need a health communication perspective to be understood include the building up of trust in experts, the psychology of hoarding, the public’s demand for concrete advice or the mass media’s penchant for personalized narratives. 


What is Health Communication?

As an academic sub-discipline, Health Communication first became visible in the late 1970’s. Rapid development of this field at all fronts could be observed, first in the US, then more hesitantly in some European countries, in Asia, in Australia and New Zealand. 

Curricular regulations were discussed and adopted, enabling students to select the field as their major. Professoral positions were created and filled, departments and institutes were established, journals were founded, textbooks written, and the large scholarly associations allowed new subdivisions into their organizations. Today it is fair to say that Health Communication is among the larger, growing and attractive areas within the wider field of communication sciences. 

A short and simple definition holds that Health Communication aims to maximize health outcomes of individuals and populations by means of communication.

Communicative means have the purpose of helping medical action along. Communication as in “Health Communication” plays a maid or servant role to medicine. It is, however, a role whose malfunction may endanger the success of the whole enterprise. 


Communication plays a role in diagnosis, in therapy (both the choice of therapy as well as its execution) and in health protection and disease prevention. Protection and prevention are the breeding ground of health campaigns. That is maybe the most salient part of the public branch of Health Communication, although modern health campaigns are often directed at particular sections of the public, for instance those who are at risk especially. 

Progress in tailoring and targeting of health messages provides a link between public (or mass) communication and private communication. And hopefully enough space and time is given to health protection and disease prevention in patients’ consultation with their doctor, which represents the private branch of Health Communication. 


Consultation has been profoundly changed by the advent and the triumph of the Internet. It is a majority of patients now, at least in the wealthy societies, who consult the web either before their consultation (for the purpose of preparing one’s talk to one’s doctor ) or after, to verify what the doctor had said and recommended. 


Provider-patient communication has always been the central concern of health communication, but communication between physicians (e.g. when a patient is transferred, or when a specialist reports back to the GP) or between patients (e.g. about a physician’s qualification or a new medical drug) are not completely left alone by health communication research. Neither is the coverage of health-relevant subjects in the mass media.


Cognitive Psychology in health communication: choose your role in the health system at UniSR

The Master in Cognitive Psychology in Health Communication, jointly offered by the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences of the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) and the Faculty of Psychology of Vita-Salute San Raffaele University of Milan (UNISR), presents a Master degree programme in cognitive psychology with an interdisciplinary training in psychology, neuroscience, health communication, organizational behaviour and management. 


Students who are admitted into the programme will receive an advanced theoretical background in neuroscience and modern psychology, will learn advanced research methods in psychology and health communication including a large variety of and statistical techniques and tools that can be used for the analysis of human behaviour in research labs, clinical departments, health frameworks and companies. 

Find out more on the dedicated section: Cognitive Psychology in Health Communication




Article written in collaboration with Professor Schulz, director of Institute of Communication and Health at the University of Lugano.

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