This morning I woke up feeling fairly crummy, and it was a continuation of an unexpected and weekend-long run-in with the flu that has yet to subside. As I write this, my lovely companions for the evening include a headache, a consistent dry cough, a complete lack of appetite, and a fascinating yet annoying tendency to feel cold during one thirty minute period and then to be sweating during the next. As a result of my current state, health has been on my mind all day, and I’ve been thinking about the crucial, but often unrecognized, importance of communication in health contexts. While not the focus area of my studies in this discipline, much of health communication relates to both computer-mediated communication (CMC) and intercultural communication, which are among my primary foci. I cannot do a lot of research today because I’m honestly not up to it with this flu, so today I’ll briefly give you a preview of three big areas where health and communication intermingle and will (hopefully) be able to elaborate later this week.
1. CMC & Healthcare
Health communication is a big sub-discipline of communication and is one of the fastest growing areas of research in our field because of the increased use of CMC in health environments (i.e. hospitals) and because this work is extremely practical and directly affects medical patients. For example, when my mother was in the hospital last year, I was fascinated by the “mobile computers” they were using–all of her information was on these computers. This is one of the major goals of the integration of CMC into healthcare; to digitize all of our medical histories and to make them easy to share between all of the different doctors that we inevitably have to deal with over the course of our lives. In theory, this will help us to become healthier because our doctors will be able to diagnose us faster and to treat us faster. While most of my audience may not be thinking about their health right now, the fact is that in a few decades, today’s college students will be tomorrow’s hospital patients, and if our whole medical history is digitized by that point and if most hospitals are using the latest technology, our future doctors will be able to treat us better and faster.
2. Internet and Health
Although I have not done so today because it’s obvious I have the flu, many people these days take advantage of Internet health websites when they are sick to figure out just what is wrong with them; one popular example is WebMD. The Internet is a form of CMC because it is an electronic network used by human beings to share messages with each other. When people feel sick or have a weird mole, for instance, they may feel more comfortable “Googling” their health issue than talking to other people about it, because what they do online is completely anonymous. Also, for people like me who avoid the doctor at all costs, the Internet often serves as an information source about our own health. Furthermore, online support groups have been proven to be crucial in helping people to deal with serious health issues such as rare forms of cancer.
3. Intercultural Understandings of Health
Experiences from my life explain why I have a passion for intercultural understandings of health: I’ve worked as a medical interpreter in the past for a Cincinnati based agency, I have experienced healthcare on two different continents, and I was really impacted by readings related to this topic in previous classes. One of those readings was the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, which I read for an Intercultural Communication course. It’s based on a true story, and follows the life of a young Hmong girl living with epilepsy in California. Her Western doctors and Hmong parents had completely different viewpoints of the causes of her disease and for how the disease should be treated. The Western doctors only focused on the child’s physical symptoms, while the Hmong parents thought it was a spirit (thus the title). Years and years of cultural misunderstanding resulted in the health of the girl deteriorating, instead of improving. This is a communication issue because traditionally, doctors such as surgeons have not received a lot of training in actual communication skills and in cultural sensitivity. While they learn the ins and outs of human biological functions, often they do not understand how to effectively listen to and communicate with their patients. If those patients are from different cultures, a lack of proper communication could lead to crucial mistakes that can hurt the health of the patient.
Health communication is a riveting and immensely important aspect of what we study, and I look forward to elaborating more on some of what I mention here later this week. First, though, I have to work on my own health, so good night :).