Communicator with a cause

Hi. Hello. How are you? Sometimes the most important conversations about health take place somewhere outside of a doctor’s office: between family and friends.

Janice Krieger, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Journalism and Communications’ department of advertising and director of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Translational Communication Research Program, is all about interpersonal communication. Although it isn’t a factor typically associated with health, Krieger maintains that it is one of the most important.

“Interpersonal communication is at the core of how we make our health decisions,” she said. “How we come to understand our health, how we make decisions about our health … even as kids, how do you learn what is healthy? It’s through what your parents, friends and family members say and do.”

Janice L. Krieger, PhD

Krieger grew up in a small rural town. When she went to graduate school, she took a class in health communication and fell in love with it.

“But at the same time, I felt that all of the articles I was reading didn’t reflect the reality of what I had experienced growing up and the way people communicated about their health,” she said.

Krieger’s interest in research related to health and communication was sparked by a desire to genuinely understand the effects and realities of low-income households and a lack of access to healthy foods and public transportation.

Currently, her work has three main areas of focus: message-design influences on how people understand health risks and information; social influences in health care decision-making; and the way in which family and friends affect mediated interventions.

The latter is especially important in cancer treatment decision-making. Although medical professionals tend to focus on the patient, Krieger maintains that the patient’s support network ought to be taken into consideration, too.

“When you begin to talk with cancer patients and their family members, you see different dynamics emerging,” she said.

In some cases, a patient might be overwhelmed by the stress of the decision and want to share the rights and responsibilities of decision-making. Other times, neither patient nor the family want to decide. And occasionally, the patients and families may disagree on the best course of treatment.

“We need to do a better job of helping families reduce the conflict about the decision-making because if you’re going through cancer, the last thing you need is added stress,” she said.

In these cases, access to information about health and health care decisions is key. But it is the format — and ability to be easily understood and shared — that is crucial.

Health is so foundational to our lives,” Krieger said. “I think everyone deserves to understand it.”

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