Communication Studies discusses health communications amid COVID-19
By Indira Zaldivar
UHD Communication Studies program hosted its first virtual speaker event on Oct.14. Three health communication experts comprised the panel which discussed effective communication strategies to inform the public, lead work teams, and help families and children deal with trauma and grief in the wake of COVID-19.
Toni Hoang, Ph.D., UHD alumna and associate professor of communication studies at UHD, said she approaches communication that informs and persuades the public to minimize risks. Hoang informed of a study that supports the extended parallel processing model by showing that only a marginal perception of threat prompts actions that prevent the infection and spread of COVID-19.
“When people don’t feel susceptible to a threat, regardless if the consequences are severe, there is no response appraisal,” Hoang said. “It’s important to recognize that the threat of COVID-19 is real, and that only a moderate level of perceived threat or detected threat is necessary to protect ourselves.”
Hoang pointed out that people are not always willing or psychologically ready to carry out the recommendations despite understanding the impact of those recommendations. “This gap implies a sense of complacency, and it is one of the most dangerous forms of human error,” Hoang said. “It’s how mistakes happen.”
She encouraged city and public health officials to use the modeling technique in communication to convey the importance of wearing a mask and other recommendations against the novel coronavirus. In the same note, Willie Payton Jr., supervisory management and program analyst at Michael E. Debakey VA Medical Center, also emphasized the use of visuals. He told communicators to refrain from text-heavy documents and opt for infographics instead.
According to the World Health Organization, 134 million adverse events occur in hospitals in both low and middle-income countries causing 2.6 million people to die each year because of unsafe hospital care. Payton said that effective communication among healthcare staff could prevent 80% of those deaths.
Payton urged leaders to foster an environment at work for people to talk because safe mechanisms are the “foundation for new ideas.” He said that small groups, group projects, or facility wide efforts provide safe mechanisms for people to give leaders feedback and innovate to solve problems. He also told the audience to remain self-aware and curious and to learn to say no.
“Learn how to create those boundaries so that you are only accepting the things you can provide the highest outcome,” Payton said. “Understand who you are communicating with so that you can effectively change your communication styles. Create that space for yourself to have emotion, empathy, and remain private.”
Leslie K. Taylor, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School of UT Health said that the pandemic is putting a strain on the family structure. Taylor said that the amount of murders between domestic violence partners increased and overall domestic violence cases rose by 40% in Houston. Taylor also said children aged two to seven are having the most destructive behavioral problems at home and are at more risk for abuse.
“It’s not very intuitive to everybody that it is important for children to have that safe base or that secure attachment with that one person and how much that can serve as a buffer and creates resiliency,” Taylor said.
Taylor works with children, families, and school districts via virtual sessions. Taylor said the pandemic altered the plans of Senate bill 11, a Texas legislation that passed in 2019 to offer mental care and support to Texas school children that experienced traumatic events. Virtual sessions present a challenge that Taylor approaches by building rapport. She said it is important to exaggerate facial gestures and emotions with children during virtual sessions because children and teens are still learning how to read emotions. She suggests giving virtual high fives, sharing the screen to show brief video clips, complete handouts, or to draw together.
The three panelists emphasized the need to take care of oneself and the importance of a support network.
“All of us are trying to figure out how to stay connected to our loved ones,” Taylor said.
“You got to take care of yourself in these situations,” Payton added. “This is the new normal, so you just have to adapt.”