What is a Health Communications Degree?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines health communications as ‘the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence decisions that enhance health.’ In general, there are four types of contemporary health communication:

Health promotion is the design and development of health campaigns aimed at reaching certain audiences and communicating important health information.

Patient-provider-family caregiver communication focuses on effective and empathetic communication between health practitioners and patients and patients’ families, with the objective of improving quality of care and patient outcomes.

Healthcare interventions combines health promotion and patient-provider-family caregiver communication. It is concerned with changing specific healthcare behavior or addressing a specific healthcare need by developing targeted educational material or conducting discussions involving patients, their advocates, and health professionals.

Health communications technology streamlines the communication process in healthcare through digital services such as mobile health applications and telehealth services, as well as the information technologies that help healthcare organizations operate more efficiently, such as electronic medical records.

Health promotion. Patient-provider-family caregiver communication. Healthcare interventions. Health communications technology. These are the cornerstones of health communications, the mandates of its practitioners, and the foundations of programs in the major.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Health Communications – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, students of health communications learn techniques, technology, and decision-making processes related to health information and communications. They learn to identify and address communication issues in a variety of healthcare settings, so that medical jargon can be translated and accurate information can be easily understood and used for better outcomes.

Here is a snapshot of a typical curriculum:

  • Interpersonal Communications – theories and skills of interaction between two people in professional and personal contexts; perception, self-concept, nonverbal communication, listening, assertiveness, relationships, conflict management, and problem solving
  • Research Methods in Communication Studies – an overview of the concepts, methods, and tools by which research in communication studies is designed, conducted, and evaluated; examination of quantitative and qualitative research procedures, research question and hypothesis generation and testing, measurement, sampling, research design, and data analysis techniques
  • Lifespan Communication – an overview of issues related to communication and aging across the lifespan; the course addresses attitudes about aging, intergenerational and intragenerational communication, enhancing communication with older adults, social construction of the aging process, older adults’ media use, effects of mass media on older adults, health communication and the older adult population; issues concerning communication and technology among older adults
  • Health Communications – students learn how health communication operates in their own lives and learn professional health communication skills; students gain a strong understanding of the field and its possibilities through communication theory and strategies; students learn to evaluate health messages for meaningful content
  • Patient-Provider Communication – the dynamics of patient-provider interactions in a healthcare setting; a variety of types of medical encounters will be examined with special attention paid to the role of narrative and rhetorical theory when analyzing communication between health providers and their patients
  • Health Campaigns – introduction to health campaign planning, implementation, and evaluation; students will work in teams to design, implement, and evaluate a campaign for an outside client organization
  • Communication Technology and Health – the role of information communication technology in improving health literacy; understanding electronic medical records, patient-provider electronic interactions, online social support, online consent, privacy management, and health information seeking
  • Communication Internship – selected placement of qualified students in off-campus health communication professions
  • Science in the Media – analyzing and producing science news content, including information about health, biology, the environment, and technology; students will develop knowledge of the best practices in science reporting, including assessing information for news value, accuracy, and impact and translating jargon into content that will engage an audience
  • Public Speaking – the oral communication process, improving oral communication skills, idea and message development, and effective delivery of ideas
  • Introduction to Mass Communication – how mass media operate, how people use and create media messages, and how media evolve and influence behavior
  • Social Work and the Community – exploration of the social work profession and the needs of diverse client populations; testing and evaluating a commitment to, and a capacity for, working with people
  • Healthcare Management – basic applied management functions in the healthcare setting; personnel and patient scheduling; purchasing procedures; budget and quality improvement process; organization relationships and authority
  • Principles of Marketing – the flow of goods from producer to consumer; demand-stimulated and demand-fulfilling activities of business enterprises; marketing concepts and systems analysis
  • Culture and Communication – culture and communication theory, criticism, and practice; individual experience in communicating cross-culturally; strategies in cross-cultural communication situations
  • Communicating Health Policy – public health policy communication and debate; US and global healthcare systems and policies and their impact on health outcomes; the role communication and debate have played in the effectiveness of policies development and implementation
  • Abnormal Psychology – symptoms, causes, and treatment of major mental disorders; research methods in psychopathology
  • Social Psychology – social perception and social influences on behavior; attribution, attitudes, attraction, aggression, pro-social behavior, compliance, and small groups
  • Health Informatics – introduction to concepts and trends in the health informatics field
  • Sociocultural Aspects of Health – the role of sociocultural factors in the creation, understanding, and utilization of messages related to health; sociocultural aspects of health as they relate to communication about health disparities; approaches to addressing health disparities within underserved populations
  • Aging and Society –the role of the older adult in society; promotion of health, support of continued learning, right to peaceful death; theories of aging and ethical / legal concepts; student experiences with older adults in the community and acute and long-term care settings

Master’s Degree in Health Communications – Two Year Duration
Master’s programs in health communications explore the breadth of issues at the heart of healthcare-related careers and examine best practices for communication in the healthcare industry. At this level, the curriculum immerses students in topics related to healthcare, visual branding and storytelling, marketing, mass media strategies, health literacy, public relations, healthcare policy, biology, epidemiology, and research methods.

Many schools allow students to choose an area of focus, following completion of a set of core courses. Below are examples of core master’s level courses as well as sample courses for two possible concentrations.

Core Courses

  • US Healthcare System
  • Health Communications Principles and Strategies
  • Research Methods for Health Communications
  • Writing for Health

Healthcare Promotion, Media, and Marketing Concentration
This concentration focuses on designing integrated public relations, media, and marketing plans to help achieve the goals of health-related organizations. It teaches students how to frame points of view and craft powerful messages using print, broadcast, social, community, and organizational media to educate and influence diverse audiences.

Courses specific to this area of focus may include:

  • Healthcare Public Relations
  • Digital Marketing for Healthcare
  • Media Relations for Healthcare
  • Epidemiology for Health Communication

Visual and Digital Health Communication Concentration
The visual and digital health communication concentration examines the impact of evolving communications technology on the field of health marketing and communications and teaches students how to harness this technology. It focuses on the design and application of tools such as infographics, data visualization graphics, videos, website, mobile apps, and branded content; as well as on how to effectively use social media in healthcare.

Courses specific to this area of focus may include:

  • Visual Communication in the Digital Health Age
  • Digital Marketing for Healthcare
  • Social Media Strategies and Tactics for Healthcare
  • Biology of Disease
  • Healthcare Marketing Strategies

Doctoral Degree in Health Communications – Three to Five Year Duration
The health communications doctoral degree is designed for students who want to become university professors, researchers, and/or senior-level practitioners in the field. Doctoral candidates complete a common set of required core courses, followed by specialized courses relevant to their dissertation research and career goals.

Here is a sample doctoral course of study in health communications:

  • Communications Inquiry and Research
  • Health Communications in Organizations
  • Communications Issues in Healthcare Organizations
  • Relational Issues in Health Communications
  • Health Communication and Society
  • Health Communication Campaigns
  • Health Communication and Culture
  • Persuasion and Social Influence
  • Health Communications Uncertainty and Risk
  • Public Understanding of Health and Healing

Degrees Similar to Health Communications

Healthcare Administration
This degree field is focused on administration of healthcare policy, services, and facilities. Students learn about healthcare law; healthcare ethics; healthcare economics, finance, and human resources; and long-term care and aging.

Journalism degree programs teach students how to report, write, and edit articles for broadcast or publication. They include classes in broadcast news writing, copyediting and design, reporting, and media law and ethics.

Mass Communication and Media Studies
Degree programs in mass communication and media studies are concerned with the critical study of communication and media. The typical curriculum explores topics like communication infrastructure, as well as issues in communication from all of these perspectives: social, cultural, historical, political, economic, technological, and legal.

Public Administration
Public administration degree programs teach students how to make and direct policy at various levels of government. These policies can involve a wide spectrum of public concerns, from healthcare to social programs to the environment. Typical courses for public administration students include community analysis, economic development, grant writing, local politics and administration, organization theory, public budgeting and financial administration, public policy, structure of government, volunteerism and the non-profit sector.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Public Relations
Degree programs in public relations (PR) teach students how to deliver information from a business, organization, government body, or individual public figure to a target audience. The curriculum differs from that of other communication sciences. In advertising and marketing programs, students learn how to design and develop communication pieces that clients seek out and pay for. Public relations courses focus on how to achieve image management, generate publicity, and earn positive media attention through press releases, press conferences, blogs, and a social media presence.

Speech Communication and Rhetoric
Degree programs in speech communication and rhetoric focus on the study of human communication. Students of the discipline examine how we communicate one on one, within organizations, and in the larger contexts of politics, cultures, and societies. Coursework includes public speaking, speech writing, and analysis and criticism of examples of persuasive speaking or writing.

Skills You’ll Learn

Communication is at the heart of human existence. Therefore, it is not exaggeration to say that the knowledge gained by students who earn a degree in health communications is transferable to – and welcome in – most every industry. Consider these useful skills that graduates take from this course of study:

  • Ability to absorb and summarize new information quickly
  • Ability to analyze and integrate data
  • Ability to disseminate information accurately
  • Ability to learn on the job
  • Ability to speak and write in clear and simple language
  • Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
  • Attention to detail
  • Digital literacy
  • Document design
  • Editing
  • Ethics
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Marketing and branding
  • Media / social media and marketing savvy
  • Objectivity and logical reasoning
  • Organization
  • Problem-solving
  • Public relations skills / press release writing
  • Public speaking
  • Social and cultural awareness
  • Research methods

What Can You Do with a Health Communications Degree?

Whether they specialize in direct patient communication, creating products and campaigns, or using information technology, health communication specialists put their knowledge and skills to use in a wide variety of employment sectors, including:

  • Biotechnology companies
  • Charitable foundations
  • Educational institutions
  • Government departments, including local, state, and federal
  • Health insurance companies
  • Health journalism and media
  • Health-related advertising, public relations, marketing, and consulting firms
  • Hospitals, medical practices, wellness centers, and senior living organizations
  • Large employers with an internal health and wellness program
  • Medical device manufacturers
  • Non-profit advocacy organizations
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • Public health and regulatory agencies, including state, national, and international
  • Publishing companies
  • Research institutes

The following sampling of job titles in health communications conveys the scope of roles that exist in the field:

  • Communications Manager / Trainer
  • Community Relations Specialist
  • Digital Content Strategist
  • Director of Health Communications
  • Director of Health Education and Communications
  • Environmental Health and Pandemic Specialist
  • Health Communications Marketing Expert
  • Health Insurance Specialist
  • Health Literacy Educator
  • Health Organization Communications Professional
  • Health Organization Supervisor, Manager, or Director
  • Health Organization Unit or Practice Leader
  • Healthcare Advocate
  • Healthcare Researcher
  • Hospital Communications Specialist
  • Knowledge Center Manager
  • Medical Editor
  • Nutrition Communications Specialist
  • Outreach Coordinator
  • Patient Engagement Specialist
  • Patient Liaison
  • Patient Safety Leader
  • Preparedness and Catastrophic Response Coordinator
  • Prevention Coordinator
  • Quality Manager
  • Risk Manager
  • Senior Health Writer
  • Social Media Manager for Healthcare Organizations
  • User Experience Designer


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