Michael Mackert

Michael Mackert

Associate Professor
The University of Texas at Austin

The concept of health literacy – how people find, understand, make use of, and communicate about – health information is my primary research interest. Most of my ongoing work relates to health promotion to lower health literate audiences, which happens in a range of contexts: prenatal health promotion, the use of e-health to reach lower health literate audiences, mammograms, informed consent, weight gain while pregnant, and breastfeeding.  I am also interested in health literacy measurement, as well as the stigma associated with health literacy and how that affects patient behavior.

Not directly related to health literacy, I also do a fair amount of work focused on college students in conjunction with the campus health promotion office.  I have been involved in projects focused on hand hygiene, sleep promotion, and prescription stimulant misuse.

One overarching theme across all projects – regardless of the health literacy of the targeted population – is how to most effectively balance education and persuasion. A goal of my work is to consider how to develop health promotion materials (either “pure” education or more often some mix of education and persuasion) that can work regardless of recipients’ health literacy.  No one ever asks for more complicated health information.

keywords to describe your research

health literacy, health communication, social marketing, health, DTC advertising

work in relation to symposium keywords

The words dissemination and ethics relate the most to my work.

I’m interested in the best ways to get health information to lower health literate audiences, translating scientific knowledge about health into a format that people can actually make use of. Dissemination of health information is a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, step toward health behavior change.

I’ve been increasingly frustrated by the view some public health advocates have of advertising, driven in part by a failure to consider how messages are designed.  I come at this problem as someone who isn’t an advertising advocate, but I find it hard to understand how one can do a content analysis (say, of drug ads) and then assume one can infer the ethics and motives of the advertisers who designed those ads. People need to actually talk to those advertisers to better understand message design.

Participation Questions

  • How do you explain/define what you do to medical personnel and/or other stakeholders in the research process or to the public?

Most people I talk to, from medical professionals to the public, understand the importance of understanding health information.  Health literacy is a pretty easy idea to wrap your head around, at least the basic concept.  I frequently frame my work as finding the right balance between education and persuasion to promote effective behavior change.  Education alone is often not sufficient.

A perfect example that I share is hand washing.  I’ve spoken at conferences with hundreds of medical professionals, and I ask them to raise their hands if they washed their hands the last time they went to the bathroom.  EVERYONE in the audience ALWAYS washes their hands.  Given stats on hand washing, I know at least some of those people aren’t telling the truth, and everyone in the audience knows that, too.  So we talk about the problem not being education, as everyone in the room knows they should wash their hands. The problem is sometimes one of motivation and/or overcoming perceived barriers to hand washing. I share work on social norms that we used to promote hand washing on campus; a parallel project is using other persuasive messages to promote hand hygiene in a hospital.

Grounding my explanation of what I do in that hand washing example quickly helps people buy into the idea that education alone isn’t going to always work for encouraging behavior change.  Effective health communication has to be an appropriate balance of education and persuasion.

  • What other keywords would you add to the list above (connections, dissemination, ethics, methods, and theory) and why? (no more than three additions)

Interdisciplinarity: One of the great benefits of working in health communication is the opportunity – often the necessity – of working with scholars from other fields. The pairing of experts in specific health issues and communication leads to stronger work, and I think this needs to be encouraged and recognized at all phases of health communication scholars’ careers.

Translation: This relates to theory, perhaps, but in health communication there are different focuses and uses of theory. Some scholars are more “theory builders,” exploring new connections between theoretical constructs.  Others are more interested in translating that theory into the “real world” and the most effective ways that can be done.  A “translation” keyword would perhaps add additional nuance to how scholars prefer to work with theory in their research.

  • What are some of the most pressing questions in health and healthcare that health communication/medical rhetoric scholars can help answer?

I think it is contributing to the disconnect between what patients often know they SHOULD do versus what they ACTUALLY DO.  There are many examples, from communicable diseases to managing chronic conditions, where patients do not do what is in their own interest.  This has implications for patients themselves, as well as the broader healthcare system.  I think communication scholars have an important role to play in finding out how and why this is the case, as well as ways that we can encourage positive health behavior change in ways that will benefit patients and the broader public health.

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