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Creating a Healthy Dialogue Between Doctor and Patient

Lisa Sparks, who directs the Master of Science in Health Communication program at Chapman University, developed the SMILE model — Satisfaction, Modification and Mirroring, Identity, Listening, Enacting and Evaluating — to help patients and healthcare providers communicate better. 

Sparks, who holds a PhD in communications, explained in a TEDxChapmanU talk in June that developing genuine relationships between doctors and patients isn’t just a nice idea. It can save lives. Sparks sat down to tell us more about why clear healthcare messages are so crucial. 

Your expertise is in how people can better communicate about health issues. How did you come to study that subject? 

After studying abroad in France, I took a course in intercultural communication. That changed my life. I became really interested in understanding how people from different cultures get confused by language differences when talking about health issues.

For my doctoral program, I went to the University of Oklahoma. At the time, health communication wasn’t really defined in the field, but we had one of the very first graduate seminars in health communication. The leading textbooks in the field now, 20 years later, are from students who were in that seminar. In a lot of ways, I was in the right place at the right time, and I’ve helped push it forward as well.

Do you have any personal experiences that connect you to this field?

The year I was writing my dissertation, my dad was diagnosed with fourth-stage lung cancer. I was sitting in these medical offices with him and I was just observing. It was a tough year. I knew when I was going through that with my dad that I was going to channel all of my energy towards improving health communication, especially around cancer.

How did you develop the SMILE model of healthcare communication?

I developed it over the last 10 years or so based on patterns that emerged from my research program in patient and provider interaction, particularly in caregiving contexts.

What exactly do you mean by health communication? 

Let’s say I meet an older adult and I find out that he used to be a baseball player. I’d talk about the (Los Angeles) Angels and I talk about my experiences with softball and try to create some shared meaning. Then I’d try to connect it to his healthcare situation in a way that he can understand. I have to know something about the person through conversation in order to be able to craft the message that’s going to resonate with them.

It’s about how healthcare providers can break bad news to their patients: to explain what the condition is, what the treatment is and what the outcomes might be. We have to think about how we present complicated health information in ways that people can grasp. More than anything, healthcare providers should be as sincere as possible and connect with the patient and share the journey. 

Why might a student interested in health policy apply to Chapman’s Master of Science in Health Communications program? 

Health communication is the hot thing. It’s the missing link. Eighty percent of medical errors are due to communication breakdown. That alone tells you how crucial health communication is in terms of decision-making and medical malpractice.

We present students with the study and use of communication strategy to inform and influence individuals, families, communities and public audiences about important health issues. We take an evidence-based approach, which means really understanding the research behind messaging and learning how to translate that kind of research into practice. 

—Lillian Hughes, Brand Publishing Writer


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