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5 Terms to Know in Health Communication

Today’s consumers have access to a seemingly endless array of news sources across a multitude of channels. More information should be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. The proliferation of unreliable media reports has made it more difficult than ever to separate fact from fiction. You might think that blatantly false, hyperpartisan stories could be easily discredited, but some experts believe that bombarding consumers with even the most fantastic stories might have the opposite effect.

The Importance of Strong Health Communication

The need for effective health communication is growing. Today, both public and private institutions are using the internet and other technologies to speed the delivery of health information. However, for people with limited reading or technical skills, this can pose a challenge. That’s why it’s so important for public health professionals to become well versed in the creation and delivery of consumer health communications. Those who grasp the nuances of health communication can provide a valuable service in settings ranging from private consulting firms to large governmental agencies.

Although it is far from comprehensive, the following glossary provides a sample of words and phrases that health communication professionals encounter daily.

Adherence: Adherence refers to how much a person’s behavior aligns with their health care provider’s recommendations. This might involve taking prescribed medications, making certain lifestyle changes or following a particular diet. A patient’s willingness to begin and adhere to treatment recommendations is vital to their health improvement, and an individual’s inclination or ability to adhere to healthy behaviors can influence their long-term health. Factors that impact a person’s adherence include finances (e.g., ability to pay for medication), the presence or lack of physical symptoms and the quality of the patient-provider relationship.

Awareness: Health awareness refers to individual or community knowledge of pressing health issues, such as preventing obesity. By educating the public on a specific health topic, an awareness campaign can help promote healthier behaviors that can, in turn, improve health outcomes. For instance, in 2012, the CDC launched its “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign to raise awareness of the negative impact of smoking and secondhand smoke.

Disparities: In terms of health care, the word “disparities” refers to differences in the availability of or access to health care services and facilities across various populations. This is not to be confused with health status disparities, which describes differences in disease rates, deaths and suffering across various population groups. These groups may be defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other attributes.

Health promotion: According to the World Health Organization, health promotion is the process of empowering people to gain better control over — and consequently improve — their health. This process goes beyond individual behavior to encompass an array of social and environmental interventions. Health promotion programs strive to enable individuals and communities to reduce the risk of chronic and infectious diseases and other conditions by adopting healthier lifestyles.

Health literacy: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, describes health literacy as a person’s ability to make smart decisions about their health by obtaining, communicating and understanding basic information about health and related services. A person’s health literacy may be influenced by a variety of factors including culture, personal communication skills and knowledge of health topics. It can impact one’s ability to practice self-care and chronic disease management, choose between health insurance or drug prescription plans, or share personal health information with providers.