Professor Promotes Benefits of Effective Health Communication

Posted: September 21, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Daniel Walsch

Gary Kreps
Gary Kreps

It started with an asthma attack. Gary Kreps was 18, living in San Francisco and working at the airport helping to unload planes. The job served to put food on the table and pay the rent until he figured out what he really wanted to do.

An asthma attack was not new. But the intensity of this particular one was. One of his lungs burst; he was fighting for his life.

Thinking back on that incident nearly 40 years later, the current chair of Mason’s Communication Department and the Steve A. and Eileen P. Mandell Professor of Health Communication views that time in his life as transforming.

While in the hospital, he was completely dependent upon the nurses and doctors — not only for their medical expertise but also for the information they shared with him.

Kreps gives his experience with the medical system a mixed review. The quality of communication with these health care providers had a major impact on the quality of care he received. While some doctors and nurses were very helpful, he still had too many questions about what to do for his asthma problem and where to turn for more information.

“Those early experiences began sensitizing me to the importance of health communication. I began seeing the benefits of effective communication, particularly how it helps provide patients with greater freedom and increased knowledge to make their own informed choices,” he says.

Ultimately, Kreps enrolled in college and began pursuing degrees in communication, culminating with a PhD in communication at the University of Southern California in 1979. It was during those early years in academia that his interest in health communication became energized, despite the fact that communication as a social scientific discipline was in its infancy. Kreps describes the field of communication in the early 1980s as being “the Rodney Dangerfield” of social scientific disciplines: “We got no respect.”

But Kreps established himself as a leading player in the advancement of the study of communication, which has grown tremendously in terms of social impact, scholarly output and recognition. Doing this, he reasoned, also benefited health care and health promotion via sound communication strategies and efforts.

“I believed then, and still do today, that advancing health communication research and application would be a significant way to improve and save lives,” he says. “The critical role of communication in society affects all aspects of modern life: health care, politics, media, intercultural relations, organizational life, education and family relations.”

Over the past 25 years, Kreps has emerged as an internationally recognized expert on health and risk communication, interactive health information systems and consumer health informatics, health services research, social marketing, communication theory and communication and aging. He has published widely, including more than 30 books and edited volumes and more than 200 chapters and scholarly articles. He has also served in faculty and administrative positions at Hofstra, Rutgers, Indiana and Purdue Universities, among others.

Prior to joining Mason in 2004, Kreps was founding chief of the Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health. It was during his tenure at NCI that the institute identified health communication research and intervention as a scientific priority for cancer prevention and control.

“Communication is a powerful tool in our efforts to combat cancer,” he says. “Whether it’s teaching us new information, motivating us to live healthier lives, or helping us make better informed choices and decisions, communication benefits both the health care givers and patients.

“If done well, communicating with patients can be quite a motivating force,” he adds.

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