The goal of health communications as it relates to public health is to share information through effective communications efforts so as to improve the quality of life for individuals, communities, and populations. It encompasses the study and use of communication strategies as a way to influence individual and community decisions that enhance health.
Therefore, public health professionals in health communications are responsible for educating and informing the public about health-related issues, such as vaccinations, disease prevention, injury prevention, environmental hazards, emergency management, healthcare policy, and maternal and infant health.
Health communications in the public health sector encompasses marketing, public relations, advertising, and journalism, so the professionals that work in this capacity include journalists, writers, editors, communications directors, and public health information officers, among others.
Their work includes being aware of new public policies, changes to public health efforts, and any other changes that affect a population’s health status. They must then decide which information is shared with the public and when; how the information is to be disseminated; and how to relay the news to the proper audience.
The major responsibilities of these health communications professionals include:
- Analyzing public policy at its highest level through constant awareness of policy changes and trends
- Understanding when a specific segment of the population is affected by a particular public health policy and making appropriate decisions about how to best inform and approach the intended audience
- Designing printed materials that educate populations about health issues
- Issuing press releases about public health emergencies or about issues in public health
- Analyzing current marketing and advertising programs and initiatives and determining how communication efforts can be modified to produce better results
- Measuring the overall outcome of communications efforts
Careers in Health Communications
Public health professionals in communications must, of course, possess excellent written and oral communication skills. But because the health communications field is diverse, professionals in this public health sector further focus their careers on a specific area, such as journalism, marketing, or public relations.
Some of the most high-profile careers in health communications include:
Technical Medical Writer
Technical medical writers are most often responsible for disseminating public health information by writing journal abstracts, white papers, presentations for professional conferences, marketing and advertising copy, and regulatory instructions, among others.
Their work involves translating scientific information into copy that can be understood by the intended audience, from medical professionals to the average person with no scientific background. This may include providing examples of highly technical information as a way to allow readers to best understand the principle or purpose.
They must also research facts and trends and consult professional resources to ensure that the information is accurate and properly sourced.
Public Health Journalist
Public health journalists report on news and events taking place in the public health sector. They may work in a freelance capacity or for publications, websites, or news programs. Like other journalists, public health journalists research storylines, follow leads, interview relevant parties, and write publications that both inform and engage the reader.
These journalists must:
- Be able to understand and write high-level information
- Be attuned to changes, trends, and new developments in public health and decide what topics are important enough to develop into journalistic pieces
- Be able to present public health news accurately and without bias
Public Health Information Officer/Public Relations Specialist
Public health information officers are often considered the gatekeepers of public health information, as it is their responsibility to disperse information to the media. These public health professionals, who may work for government agencies, public hospitals, or medical universities, are the face of the employer for whom they work. They decide what information is to be released and how to deliver the information to the public.
Much of their work is involved with public relations, as they research, write, and edit public relations pieces, provide news updates, answer questions, and develop information pipelines and procedural guides that must be followed in the event of a public health crisis.
Education Requirements for Health Communications Professionals
The general course of education for individuals interested in pursuing health communications starts with an undergraduate degree in an area such as journalism, communications, public relations, marketing, and advertising. Although many health communications professionals enjoy careers with just an undergraduate degree, many others find that possessing a graduate degree affords them far more opportunities in this competitive public health field.
One of the most widely pursued graduate degrees for professionals in health communications is the Master of Public Health (MPH). All MPH programs are designed to provide students with a foundation of knowledge in the five disciplines of public health:
- Environmental health
- Health policy and management
- Social and behavioral sciences
Although students may complete a general MPH degree, most public health schools offer the opportunity for specialization. An MPH in Health Communications prepares students to:
- Use print, broadcast, social, community, and institutional medias in skilled and creative ways as to address public health problems
- Encourage individuals and populations to make healthy choices
- Create and implement tailored campaigns, messages, and materials for specific populations
- Understand how to connect the public, policy makers, and researchers
Typical courses in an MPH in Health Communications program include:
- Communications in public health
- Strategic public relations
- Public relations media strategies
- Program evaluation and research
- Communication theory
- Media and health
- Health information and health literacy
- Health communication campaigns