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Health Professionals: Potential Ethical Issues They May Face





























Word Count: 3317
PHIL 303-01



            With the 2016 presidential elections soon upon us, one topic that is always discussed is health care and its accessibility to United States citizens. While this is always a topic during these debates, this year will be even more important as many on the Republican side of the aisle wish to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I bring this up to show the unstable environment, in which the health field exists. While changes may be coming, one of the most important factors will be the way that people come to understand the changes to health care that will affect them. This is why I believe that health communication professionals will be major contributors to the health field in the coming decade. As the system remains in an unsteady environment, finding a way to clearly articulate health outcomes, goals, and shortcomings will become even more crucial. In this paper, we will examine what a health communication professional is, their duties and responsibilities, as well as explore three major ethical dilemmas that one could face in this field. I argue that by using sound judgment through a humanistic lense, all of theses dilemmas, while challenging, are solvable. Through examining issues by looking at all human’s as worthy of protection and ensuring their safety, while holding public health as a priority, I believe this paper addresses many of the current issues health communication professionals face today.

What the profession is, what these professionals do, and where they work?

            In order to understand the ethical issues that may face me one day in my proclaimed profession, it is crucial to understand what a professional most generally is. I would define a professional as someone with specific qualifications and training to handle situations is specific fields of work. In other words, professionals have some kind of training/education that allowed them to get to the position they are in today. Because of this, we trust these individuals more than other members of our communities. Doctors need more training than fast food workers, and for good reason—heart surgery is much more complex than making burgers. And while both of these jobs do take different skill sets, one of these is definitely more intensive than the other. These individuals are held, therefore, to higher standards and we expect them to act accordingly. Moral obligations for health professionals are going to be different than those individuals working in the for-profit sector of the professional world.

            Knowing what a professional is, I can now address the specific profession I plan on entering into, health communication. “Health communication is the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence individual and community decisions that affect health. It links the fields of communication and health and is increasingly recognized as a necessary element to improve personal and public health”  (Health Communication, 1). Therefore, a health communication professional is one who works to disseminate health information to consumers of their companies. This definition is the most general explanation of what these individuals do, but it is not limited to this. While most health communication professionals are focused on customers or consumers, some actually work for their company’s own employees. In other words, you can create and help others in your business work towards health initiatives and other health goals. While this may seem similar to the roles of lobbying groups, health professionals’ ultimate goal lie in successful health outcomes of their patients, rather than ensuring that the people who pay you come out as the victor.

            It is important to note that health professionals have many areas where they can work. There are some businesses that focus specifically on health communication and that is all they do. For example, the business JPA Health Communication is a specific public relations firm that specializes in health communication for non-profit associations, pharmaceutical companies, and government agencies (JPA, 1). This company is one that another business can hire to either create better health communication between a company and their customers or employees. Other areas where health professionals work are in hospitals, clinics, and pharmacy chains. Health communication professionals are also found in large companies that have direct ties to health and wellness. Often times at these large corporations and businesses there are many qualified individuals who specialize in healthcare knowledge. However, this doesn’t always mean that those individuals are effective at distributing that knowledge. Often times, these individuals simply don’t know how to bring the information down to a level that is understandable to the everyday worker or patient. This is where a professional who specializes in health communication can help. They can work with other health professionals and help to communicate messages in easy and understandable ways. The last area where health communication professionals work are in everyday companies that have no direct affiliation with health related concepts. This would be like grocery stores, large retail stores, or even government organizations. As advances in social media continue to open up companies to public scrutiny more and more, it becomes important for companies to be proactive when it comes to issues surrounding equal rights, the environment, and public health. By having someone in your company who’s role it is to look out for the health of both customers and employees alike, is a good way to market your company as one that is forward thinking and progressive. To recap, the three major areas where a health communication professional would work are: 1) health communication consulting firms, 2) health organizations, 3) Everyday companies.

What are the main duties and responsibilities?

            When it comes to the main duties and responsibilities of this profession, it becomes difficult because there are so many different things that people do as health communication professionals. Overall, the job of a health communicator is not clear, nor is it well defined. To address this, we will look at the three major areas where health communication professionals work and examine the specific tasks from each. First, health communication consulting firms. In this position, the main job is for the health communicator to work with media and public relations from a health standpoint. Often times these jobs will have regular PR individuals, but having someone with a strong health background is crucial when working for a firm that specializes in health communication. These individuals are also responsible for creating and fostering relationships with other businesses and working toward those company goals and aspirations when it comes to health outcomes.

            The second main area of tasks can be found within health organizations. These are things like hospitals, pharmacies, and clinics. While these locations are often times saturated with health professionals, having individuals directly focusing on communicating health topics becomes important. Often times doctors have a hard time getting messages across to patients, the same is true for pharmacists. A health communication professional works to strengthen these chains of communication by working with both other health professionals and with patients. Health is vital to everyone’s wellbeing; however, it is often something that is misunderstood. Ensuring that people receive information that is both comprehensible and valuable is crucial.

            The last area where health communication professionals can be found would be in every-day businesses. Often times, health communication professionals can serve a wide variety of jobs and many different businesses. A health communication professional can provide companies not specializing in health with someone that their consumers can connect with. Individuals might be stationed at grocery stores to assist customers with health concerns regarding their food. Another example would be a personal fitness trainer that focuses not only on improving physical strength, but overall wellbeing. These professionals also often times hold positions in human resources due to their extensive knowledge concerning the healthcare field. These human resource officials are valuable sources for individuals within companies to contact when questions arise concerning their health plans, premiums, and medical coverage. This becomes extremely valuable when you realize that human resource personnel are primarily responsible for a company’s health care plans. In addition, these individuals give companies something their competitors may not have. If a business can convince consumers that they are forward thinking and working towards public and employee health goals, then perhaps more individuals will be inclined to shop at that establishment. Overall, the job of a health communicator is not very clear, but this doesn’t mean these individuals don’t play vital roles at companies. These professionals are multifaceted and wear a variety of different hats at many different organizations.

Thoroughly explain three major ethical issues this profession faces and solutions.

            I will now propose three different major ethical issues that professionals in this field face. While many issues that health professionals face are similar to those of other professions, the dangers are heightened in this field. This is due to the fact that this field deals with individuals’ personal health information and in many cases their lives. The first scenario is that in a system that continually pressures higher and higher outputs in the medical field, how can health communication professionals ensure that individuals have good health literacy? The specific situation I will address is when patient health literacy is put in jeopardy in regards to pharmaceutical drugs. Many times common instructions placed on prescription bottles are not clearly understood by patients (Altin, 4). This is why in recent years the emphasis placed on face-to-face communication between health professionals and patients has been so heavily stressed (Altin, 6). However, imagine that you work for CVS and another colleague proposes to reduce the number of staff at pharmacies to increase profitability. While this may help lower costs of the pharmacy, should you do this knowing that the pharmacy staff will have much less time to communicate with patients?

            This situation is a very real one and one that I have personally experienced in my own job. Ensuring that patients completely understand their medications is crucial to their wellbeing, but is also extremely time consuming. This is true even when you factor in that many individuals coming to pharmacies are elderly and already have a hard time understanding everyday situations, much less those that are complicated and concerning their health (Serper, 5). In this situation, I think the important thing to do is to not be afraid to speak out against the single-minded goal of profit. Often times large companies get so wrapped up in finding ways to cut corners and save money that it actually hurts them in the long run. This is also a special problem of private, for-profit health care delivery systems, which views patients as customers rather than individuals needing medical attention. By looking at the long-term risks, such as more individuals incorrectly take their medicine, versus short-term benefits I think that the obvious answer is to ensure patient health is prioritized. Speaking up is hard, but it is something that a health professional needs to be able to do.

            The second scenario is that as a health communication professional you may be asked to deliberately lie for a company. In other words, your company advises you not to give the whole truth in order to keep the integrity of the company in a good light and a positive force in the public’s eye. While lying is in itself a very touchy ethical subject, the issue is a very real one. Companies are extremely concerned with maintaining positive images in the public eye (Lambert, 3). This extends to employees of the company holding up the organization as well. This was very clear from our study of whistleblowers in this class. The idea of betraying one’s company is a very real choice with potentially life-altering consequences. For a specific example, imagine that you are working for the company Medtronic in the Twin Cities. Medtronic has made many advances in medicine and works with doctors and patients towards implementing new and innovative medical devices into everyday life (Medical Device, 1). Imagine that you are a spokesperson trying to sell a new pacemaker to doctors at hospitals across the Midwest. The pacemaker is being marketed as the newest and best pacemaker, out-doing the earlier versions on a multitude of levels. However, say this isn’t true, and that you know the pacemaker isn’t anything special and is just a ploy to get doctors to use this pacemaker over others. Your company is relying on you to get the sale. There are no health risks; you are simply “selling-up” your product. Take the same situation again, and imagine that there is actually a very real possibility that the pacemakers could have disadvantageous health consequences. While this isn’t expressly verified, your company has instructed you to stay quiet about the matter. Should you stay silent or should you speak out against your company?

            This is a difficult situation to navigate through. Determining whether to refuse instructions from superiors is always a difficult choice. In the first example, it is clear that there is no chance that the product would bring harm. In this regard I argue that it can be viewed as simply another spokesperson for a product. However, since it is health related the water becomes a bit murky. Can we as professionals oversell products that directly influence the wellbeing of consumers? Because no harm is arriving from the first choice, there isn’t really any harm in overselling your product. If you were the spokesperson for Medtronic attempting to sell your product your function within the company would be that of a salesperson. Individuals working in sales have one goal; make the sell. The same can be said for this situation. However, when we consider that the product may actually be harmful to those who use it, the situation becomes much different. As J. S. Mill would argue, liberty ends when the harm principle is violated. In other words, the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals, and when those actions do harm others, we have violated this principle (Heydt, 5). Even if, like mentioned before, it isn’t a conclusive harm, if the threat exists individuals should be made aware. What is worse is that if your company has directly told you not to disclose this information, then they are obviously aware of the harms and potential danger that it could cause. In this situation, I feel that as a professional your duty to hold the wellbeing of the general public above the importance of monetary gains. Not only are you doing consumers and doctors a favor by sharing this information, but in the long run you help yourself and your company as well. If someone did become injured using the pacemaker and it was found that you and your superiors knew about the issue, you could both be painted in very bad light. To do this, start with telling your supervisor, continuing up the chain, before finally going to the press if necessary. While sticking up for what is right may be hard, I believe in this situation the correct thing to do is to open and honest when selling the product.

            The third scenario that I will address is the idea of refusing care based on the inability to pay. Imagine that you are working for a healthcare company and you are asked to justify and explain to other employees of the company that they must turn away individuals seeking medical help who are not able to pay. This has become a very real issue in recent years, with several large companies making policies directly related to this issue (Camerini, 7). The problem here is whether you as a company value wide scale public health over monetary gains? This becomes interesting when you consider that many times these companies pride themselves on being the cornerstones of public health and wellbeing (Camerini, 6). Finding a way to reconcile that belief with the stark contrast of refusing service is a task that could fall on a health communication specialist. Finding a way to bridge that gap and make the reasoning and justification for such an action clear is a very challenging task.

            This situation is very difficult, because it encompasses a barrier so large that it is nearly impossible for one individual to combat. If you refuse to comply with the company’s wishes, chances are they are not going to change their policy and will simply replace you with someone who can get the job done. In this situation, it becomes a scenario where one may have to advocate for something they truly do not believe in. While it is easy to say that as a professional you will stand up to all injustices, it also must be remembered that a professional is most valuable while they are employed. Standing up for what one believes is important and standing up for public health is crucial as well, but when faced with the opposition of an entire corporation, one must realize that systemic change must first occur. In this situation, I think you as the professional need to remove yourself from the situation and realize that in this instance you are simply the messenger and while you may disagree with the decision, that decision ultimately does not rest with you and your judgement. However, this doesn’t mean that you should stop fighting. Encourage individuals within your organization and surrounding community to advocate for change. Work with individuals to start a community fund, or talk with doctors to see if there are ways to reducing costs for individuals who cannot afford the services as other communities have done (Pennel, 7). Delivering your companies messages is your job, but by valuing all human life and seeing the necessity of upholding public health, it becomes clear that as a health communication professional you can help make a difference.

            Health communication professionals wear a variety of different hats. They are found in many different companies and organizations and will continue to shape the health field in years to come. As healthcare continues to become a very polarized topic, it will continue to evolve and change in the future. Having competent and well qualified health communication professionals to help bridge the gap between the health field and patients will be increasingly important in coming years. By holding all individuals as equal and seeing the importance of holding public health as a number one priority, I believe that as a health communication professional I can create change wherever I find work. I feel confident that the moral teachings gained in this class will help me make correct judgments and decisions when it comes to all my practices in the future.


Works Cited

Altin, Sibel Vildan, et al. "The Evolution Of Health Literacy Assessment Tools: A Systematic Review." BMC Public Health 14.1 (2014): 1-24. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Camerini, Anne-Linda, and Peter J. Schulz. "Health Literacy And Patient Empowerment: Separating Con-Joined Twins In The Context Of Chronic Low Back Pain." Plos ONE 10.2 (2015): 1-13. Academic Search Premier. Web.

"Health Communication." Health.Gov. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, n.d. Web.

Heydt, Colin. "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. University of Southern Florida, n.d. Web.

"JPA - A Health Communications and Public Relations Agency." JPA Health Communications. N.p., n.d. Web.

Lambert, Veronica, and Deborah Keogh. "Health Literacy And Its Importance For Effective Communication. Part 1." Nursing Children & Young People 26.3 (2014): 31-37. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

"Medical Device - Medical Technology and Services Company | Medtronic." Medical Device - Medical Technology and Services Company | Medtronic. N.p., n.d. Web.

Pennel, Cara L., et al. "Nonprofit Hospitals’ Approach To Community Health Needs Assessment." American Journal Of Public Health 105.3 (2015): e103-e113. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Serper, Marina, et al. "Health Literacy, Cognitive Ability, And Functional Health Status Among Older Adults." Health Services Research 49.4 (2014): 1249-1267. Academic Search Premier. Web.