Ashland University has developed a new undergraduate degree program in health and risk communication and, according to an AU professor, it is the only program of its kind in the nation.
"What we’re doing here at Ashland is truly unique because it is the only undergraduate health and risk communication program in the U.S.," said Dr. Theodore Avtgis, chair and professor in the Department of Communication Studies. "People interested in health and safety careers will gain the necessary skills to effectively message to publics who are vulnerable, at risk or in crisis situations. These skills sets are critical in modern day society and as natural and man-made crises will continue to occur, effective messaging is critical to keeping the public and organizations safe."
According to Avtgis, the health and risk communication program at Ashland University focuses on two of today’s fastest growing industries -- health and safety.
"We are addressing today’s job market demands with tomorrow’s skill sets. Health and risk communication is a hybrid of two separate areas in the discipline of communication studies," Avtgis said. "Health communication deals with the interpersonal aspects of patient-provider interaction, the team aspects of healthcare delivery as well as the development and execution of healthcare campaigns. Risk communication is a separate entity that deals with the identification of potential threats, the addressing of current threats or crises, and eventually, threat containment and threat mitigation."
The new undergraduate degree is housed in AU’s Department of Communication Studies within the College of Arts and Sciences, yet has students taking courses across three colleges throughout the university.
Dr. Dariela Rodriguez, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, noted the importance of this new program.
"Traditionally, health and risk communication have been treated as separate areas of study. However, in the post 9/11 environment, we are learning that health and safety are inextricably linked, you cannot separate those two anymore," she said. "So while many communication studies programs continue to address these areas as separate, here at Ashland what we have done is created a program that reflects the current and future demands of the health and safety sectors."
With a focus on communication theory, research, and application, the AU program prepares students for a variety of careers that include health communication specialist, risk manager, director of communication and public affairs, communication project specialist, security specialist, director of external affairs, health communication training and development officer, safety training, and as a pre-professional program for students focused on medical school or other terminal degrees in health.
"Employment projections by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate a 24 percent growth in demand over the next five years in the communication studies field and our program will be set up to allow for internships ranging from local government agencies to pharmaceutical companies," Avtgis said.
He said students are actively engaged in research with faculty who are certified in risk communication and actively consulting government and private sector organizations on risk and crisis communication.
Dr. Dawn Weber, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, stressed the importance of this new major at Ashland University.
"The major in health and risk communication prepares students with the skills and training that ensures the public is well informed in the event of a crisis. The role of communication is central to saving lives and to informing the public. The quality of information and the time it takes to convey it from first responders to emergency room doctors can make the difference between a life saved and a life lost," Weber said. "Just this summer, individuals in 15 states as well as our own community experienced flu-like symptoms associated with cyclospora contamination in bagged lettuce. All too frequently we hear of rogue shooters in public places such as high schools, shopping malls, and the Boston Marathon. In each of these cases, communication professionals are essential to providing the public with accurate information."
The Journal of Risk and Crisis Communication, an online journal located in the UK, helped spread the word about the Department of Communication's innovative program.