Health communication, as a theory and practice, includes rich dimensions at both a conceptual and methodological content level. In such a context, the ICH approach to research concentrates on the integration of contributions from human sciences and humanistic traditions (in particular, philosophy, linguistic and argumentation theory) with empirical analysis bound to social sciences, including social psychology, sociology and decision-making theories. The multidisciplinary research of the ICH warrants an excellent background for the idea of optimal health and supports conceptual and praxis-oriented dialogue with the different stakeholders involved in the health sector and in health promotion.
The ICH research concentrates four main areas:
For several years the Institute has concentrated part of its research activities on the field of health literacy and empowerment. The idea of individual patient empowerment reflects an important development in health communication research. At a basic level, recent work in the area has begun to recognize the recipient of communication (as customer, client, or patient) as a more active participant in the communication process. Rather than focusing on the source and message characteristics and the appropriateness of the message delivery system, the recipients' values, perceptions, preferences, and the process of making choices become paramount. ICH has embraced this perspective, incorporating it in the stream of research on health literacy, which has been a staple of the work at the Institute from the start. The goal of the research activities in this field is to develop a clearer understanding of patient empowerment, its relationship to health literacy, and its impact on health decision-making, behavior, and outcomes in the specific context of the management of chronic diseases.
The communication about health-related topics does not only happen face-to-face, for instance, during the doctor-patient encounter, but increasingly online and through mobile technologies as access and usability advance. This area of research combines a variety of studies conducted at the ICH on factors that determine interpersonal and mediated communication about topics on health prevention and care. In addition, the area includes studies on the impact of interpersonal and mediated communication as well as the use of mass media on health outcomes by looking at different stages in the life course from childhood to old age. Central concepts are, among others, family relations, trust, social networks, social isolation, and digital divide.
Inquiry into cultural factors in the field of health communication look back to a longer research tradition. This is especially true for macro-cultural factors such as those studied in the USA among the different racial groups in the population (blacks, Hispanics, causasian). Less is known about whether differences can also be found on a micro-cultural level. This question has been studied for several health issues since the foundation of the former HCC Lab. The relevance of studies into micro-cultural differences in health communication issues becomes evident when one considers the fact that, as a rule, health awareness campaigns are conducted all over the country without regard for such differences.
The plan for the future is to study cultural factors on a larger scale also, that is beyond Switzerland, conducting comparative investigations of differences to the USA or Asian countries.
Effective risk communication is essential in order to make informed decisions. Therefore, an adequate understanding and proportionate perception of relevant risks are the first steps toward the uptake of preventive behaviors and avoidance of health threats. By drawing on various behavioral and communication theories, the Institute's research examines how risk communication needs to be designed to effectively reach the target population to increase knowledge, improve attitudes, and ultimately change health-related behaviors.
Further, the advent of the Internet has had a lasting impact on the way people search for, process, and deal with health information. On the one hand side, the World Wide Web facilitates easy access to information and offers new possibilities to foster social interaction and informed decision making. However, at the same time, the online health information seeker runs the risk of being affected by false evidence or of being overwhelmed by the abundance of information. Within this area, the Institute of Communication and Health investigates how consumers search for information on topics such as colorectal cancer or vaccination, in what way the information affects their health-related attitudes and decisions, and to what extent health care professionals and consumers deem the same information relevant.