Don Martin, associate dean of the College of Communication, is a true believer.
“There’s a relationship between the quality of care that a patient receives and the communication surrounding that patient,” he says, describing the driving force behind the new Master of Arts in health communication program.
“Good communication doesn’t just happen, and poor communication is everywhere in a hospital: between nurses and physicians, between nursing shifts, between family members and caregivers. A few years ago, I began interviewing patient advocates at hospitals in Chicago and created a typology of the types of problems they solve for families, including finding or acting as interpreters for immigrants. That perspective is behind this program, which prepares students to excel in organizational, relational, and small-group communication in health care settings.”
The MA can prepare students for careers as patient advocates, health care administrators sensitive to communication issues, professional staff trainers, or directors in charge of a hospital’s internal and external communications. As the program teaches future health care professionals how to bridge gaps in communication, it could help make diversity — whether among hospital employees or patients — a positive value in delivering excellent care.
“That’s new on the radar, but we’re already there,” says Elissa Foster, associate professor in the College of Communication and program director. “Our students want to make a systemic difference. Quality care should be universal, and communication is a big part of that picture.”
For graduate student Sarah Mouton, the program represents a way to combine her undergraduate degree in communication with her compassion for people: “A program like this just doesn’t exist anywhere else. As health care gets more complicated, it’s harder for people to understand and navigate the system. There’s a real opportunity and need for people to help with that — an opportunity I’m excited about. I take great satisfaction in the fact that what I’m studying really matters.”
Andrea Dixon, who expects to graduate next year, plans to use her degree to work in human resources and administration: “One administrator might know how to communicate with another, but sometimes no one seems to know how to talk to the family of a patient or to employees. Some are even a little intimidated at the idea. It’s good to be on the cutting edge of figuring out how to make sure no one is left out of the conversation.”
Innovative not just in its content but also in its context, the program includes two out-of-the-box collaborations:
1) Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm, is providing both internship opportunities and occasional adjunct faculty. “It’s really smart that DePaul has introduced this program because the industry needs more people who understand issues around complex communications and who know how to navigate the health care space effectively,” says Liz Dunavant, Edelman vice president.
2) Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and DePaul are sharing some classes, a pooling of resources made possible by the Alliance for Health Sciences, a unique collaboration for expanding the number of health care professionals who are prepared to meet the challenges of a changing field.
“We want to see our cohorts working together, a real cross-fertilization of ideas,” says Foster. “Our students can learn from each other since each group brings a different perspective about communication between doctors and patients, between members of a health care team, and between health providers and underserved populations.”
Martin sums up the program’s unique value: “We cover all the bases: diversity, patient advocacy, teamwork, and organizational leadership. We connect research, the curriculum, and careers. This program is all about bringing together theory and practice — exactly what DePaul does so well.”