Global Health Education at Rutgers: In our education content series, Rutgers Global Health Institute explores global health coursework offered throughout Rutgers.
Health Communication & Community Health
Matthew Matsaganis, PhD
Associate Professor of Communication
School of Communication and Information
Communication is an important social process through which global health effects manifest, but also a mechanism through which individuals, families, and community-based organizations and institutions can make the neighborhoods they live in and serve healthier places. In this class, students are introduced to the burgeoning multidisciplinary literature around neighborhoods and health as well as the salient theoretical, methodological, and policy debates. More importantly, putting knowledge developed through the course to work, students will work individually and in small teams to diagnose health challenges in communities and develop proposals for how to solve them. (Source: Fall 2019 Syllabus)
Q&A with Prof. Matsaganis
Your class teaches students to diagnose health challenges in local communities and develop proposals for how to solve them. What topics do your students focus their proposals on?
Working in small teams, students develop their plans at least in part based on the readings and other materials we have discussed in class. They strive to develop proposals in which communication is thought of as an important process through which we become aware of, make sense of, and address health-related problems; and through which life in smaller and larger communities gets organized. For example, it is through communication that we mobilize communities to tackle complicated health-related issues, such as food insecurity or lead-contaminated water and soil.
Increasingly, the research we discuss in class has taken place outside of the United States. Food insecurity, for example, is a topic and a problem that several populations and communities across the U.S. face, but it’s also a pressing concern in many other parts of the world. And often in those places, innovative solutions emerge that can be adapted globally, such as certain models of urban community gardening and farming.
This semester, we have partnered with a wonderful local organization, MCFOODS, whose mission is to achieve food security for all residents of Middlesex County. The purpose of this collaboration is to give students the opportunity to work on important health issues in real-world conditions.
Issues that students have gravitated toward in recent years include providing access to healthier food options, increasing physical activity to reduce obesity rates, and helping urban community residents manage type 2 diabetes.
What topics generate the most discussion in class?
Discussions around the general idea that our zip code is not just a container that we choose to live in and that it can be so consequential for our physical and mental well-being are always lively. So is conversation around how interpersonal and mediated communication shape our understanding of places, which can have long-term, health-related consequences. For example, consider the impact of a place like a park being talked about and thought of as dangerous, or of a health clinic located in a place where crime rates are perceived to be high, or a community as a place in which residents do not care about each other and their neighborhood.
Increasingly, the role of technology in addressing health issues in urban communities—such as the use of games, like Pokémon Go, for increasing physical activity—grabs students’ attention. Students are often keen on discussing various research methods for collecting data and designing interventions to address community health problems, such as participatory photo mapping and Photovoice techniques.
When addressing social and environmental determinants of health in communication, why does zip code matter?
In many cases, place determines the factors that are contributing to a health problem, such as the presence of environmental hazards. And it is always going to determine what resources an individual does or does not have to address health concerns, including health facilities, health professionals, parks and recreation sites, support organizations and groups, and information sources.
All communities have a particular communication infrastructure that residents and other local stakeholders count on to achieve everyday life goals, such as finding a local health specialist. What this infrastructure looks like depends on many things, including the sociodemographic makeup of the community. It should be noted that local communities are part of specific and particular media markets, in which residents have access to a more or less limited array of media.
And it’s often not just about how many media one has access to, but what content these media deliver. Several smaller cities and towns have few or no media that carry local news and information. In these instances, health communication campaigns often need to rely more heavily on local interpersonal communication networks or even work with local community stakeholders to build up the local community’s communication infrastructure. There might be a need to create reliable social media channels or produce new radio programs.
Media outlets are more widely available than ever. Does this change the approach when constructing a communication strategy?
The proliferation of media outlets can be a problem when you’re trying to develop a communication strategy and intervention. It’s always key to have mapped in advance your target population’s communication ecology—that mix of communication resources your target population relies on for things that matter for your campaign or intervention. One size does not fit all, and therefore, this work is critical for every project.
It is clear to me that a deep understanding of and the skills to analyze our complex and ever-changing communication environment are today more important than ever before, particularly for efforts to address pressing health issues, locally and globally. So, I always welcome to my class students from all disciplinary backgrounds who work on health challenges, not just communication.