Effective communication is critical to truly enable and promote healthy people and communities. However, nearly nine out of ten adults lack the literary skills needed to effectively manage their health and prevent disease. With low health literacy linked to poor health outcomes, the healthcare industry must prioritize delivering and personalizing healthcare communications so that they can be understood and used by all Americans. To learn more about delivering effective healthcare messages, particularly as it relates to digital health initiatives, we sat down with Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM and Sandra Rosenbluth, MS, Digital Health Communication professors at Tufts University School of Medicine to learn more.

1. What are some of the biggest challenges reaching targeted populations with effective healthcare messages? How have digital and social tools made a positive impact?

The biggest challenge is that not everyone is online, and even when people are, they may lack the digital literacy skills to use technology effectively. The increase in smartphone and tablet use has certainly brought more people to the internet. Often individuals will have one of these devices even if they don’t have a computer. But digital literacy is a whole new arena. From our own research, we’ve found that a high-touch approach works best. A little hands-on guidance with new health technologies works better than any instruction manual and helps overcome barriers to use. Once people start to feel some confidence in the digital space, they are better able to receive effective healthcare messages.

2. What digital health trends excite you the most and hold the potential to really improve care and health for people? 

We love the digital health field because of the rapid changes taking place in both technology and adoption. Because of our interest in wearables, that is one of the areas where we see the most potential from the perspective of self-management. We also see the potential for more tailored patient counseling once physicians have access to condensed displays of patient data integrated into EHRs from patient wearables. At the same time, we see the grassroots efforts to bring people together for social support as one digital health area with the greatest potential to help people through peer support.

3. What is the connection between effective digital health communications and health literacy?

The key word here is “effective.” Effective digital health communication must consider the target audience, and part of that is knowing the health literacy level of said audience. What is the point of crafting a health message if the recipient of the message cannot understand and act on it? In general, digital health communications should be simple and engaging, regardless of audience. A well-educated individual could be dealing with a health issue outside his or her field and be unfamiliar with specific healthcare jargon. Or someone with high literacy skills may be in shock from a devastating diagnosis and unable to retain information. It’s impossible to predict the exact circumstances of someone on the receiving end of your digital health communication, so considering health literacy at all times is a must.

Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM (left) and Sandra Rosenbluth, MS (right), Digital Health Communication professors at Tufts University School of Medicine

4. How has healthcare communications changed in the last 5 years, and how do you envision it changing in the next 5 years?

Healthcare and technology are intertwined and inseparable. Yet technology in and of itself does little – it’s all in how you use it. The changes we see are a growing awareness of the complexity of using technologies effectively to better reach people. People better understand that it isn’t enough to create a website or app, but to start with the needs assessment, build in the promotion strategy, and end with an evaluation and iteration based on the evaluation.

5. You teach a series of professional development courses at Tufts School of Medicine on digital health communications. What are some of the most frequent questions you hear from those taking the courses?

Our students are all working professionals, and key to their success at work is learning to be strategic to achieve health goals for a target population. With technology changing so fast, mastering something like a new social media platform only has a limited shelf life. But becoming adept at selecting, using, and evaluating digital health technologies helps our students to be digital health leaders in their careers. They also develop hands on skills, which give them a deeper understanding of the wealth of digital health innovations taking place. Being able to take what’s learned and apply it to real organizations and real public health issues in an educational setting provides invaluable practice and insight before using this skillset in their actual professions.

As healthcare costs continue to rise and we push for consumers to become more empowered and engaged in healthcare, it is critical that we take communications strategies carefully into consideration in healthcare. Providing patients with access to digital health technologies is simply not enough. We must also collectively work to provide the information, coaching and on-going assistance that will enable people to adopt technologies that will help them not only manage, but improve their health and well-being.

Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM and Sandra Rosenbluth, MS, both teach in the Certificate in Digital Health Communication at Tufts University School of Medicine. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Lisa is Director of the program. Learn more about their digital health program here.

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