Health Communication Combines Helping Others with Studying Human Behavior

Health Communication is a rewarding field in which much of the implementation is driven by research.

To illustrate the impact of researchers in the field of Health Communication, we offer brief descriptions of two contemporary studies.

In general, Health Communication campaigns are about changing attitudes, which will lead to changes in behaviors. However, any Health Communication campaign in the media will always find itself in competition with a barrage of other messages, all competing for mindshare in the patient population. How can professionals who are trying to create an attitude and behavior change about childhood sexual abuse, for instance, get an edge over those that are selling jeans? 

Study 1: Ad Testing for Childhood Sexual Abuse Awareness

That was the question John Wirtz, Sela Sar, and Brittany Duff of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wanted to explore. In particular they sought to test the effectiveness of “narrative” messages vs. simple recitations of facts and figures about childhood sexual abuse.

They created and tested two ads. In the first, a little girl is alone in her room playing with stuffed animals. When it’s time for bed, she places a chair against the door. There’s a shot of an unseen person pushing on the other side of the door, and then we see the girl’s frightened face as she tries to hide under the covers. During this narrative, an off camera announcer described signs of sexual abuse and steps for prevention. 

In the second ad, the announcer simply provided a recitation of facts about child abuse in what might be described as a generic public safety format. Following the test, participants reported on their state of mind after viewing each of the ads, and were invited to take with them a “contact me about childhood sexual abuse” card.

In hundreds of men and women across various age groups, the narrative ad produced far more attitude change than the other, and significantly more of these individuals took the response card. That’s exactly the behavior that the sponsors of this messaging were hoping for. Now they know.

Study 2: Content Testing to Increase Organ Donor Participation

As of January, 2017, more than 118,000 people were waiting for organ transplants in the U.S. However, only 16,000 people have registered to be organ donors. 95% of the American population supports organ donation, but only a fraction actually sign up. This problem is particularly acute in West Virginia, where only 37% of the population aged 18 and over have enrolled. 

Megan Dillow of West Virginia University and Keith Weber of Chapman University believed that messages simply urging people to become organ donors would be ignored. They speculated, however, that appealing to individuals based on their “social identity” might be a more effective way to change attitudes and behaviors. One example of using “social identity” is research that proved that when college students at a particular university were positioned as competing with students of a neighboring school in an organ donor registration contest, there was a dramatic increase in the number of registrations to become organ donors.

In Dillow and Weber’s specific study, two messages were prepared and tested. One stated the basic facts only. The second added an appeal highlighting the need for donors specifically for fellow West Virginians. The result: significantly more of those who received the social identity targeted message vs. the fact-based message clicked the provided link to become donors.

This is the type of strategic research routinely done by professionals in Health Communication.

Graduate students can enter the Health Communication track in Bryant's M.A. in Communication program with any undergraduate degree. 

If you can imagine a rewarding non-medical career in health care that positively impacts others, Request Information now.

Graduate students in Bryant's Health Communication track collaborate directly with Dr. Julie Volkman. Questions? She would be delighted to hear from you at or 401-232-0436.

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