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Learning about serious illnesses: Implications for instructional communication

Randa Sue (Lumsden) Garden, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The purpose of the present study was to explore what learning strategies (or modes of learning) persons with serious illnesses use to learn about their illnesses or conditions. My first goal was to determine where patients locate credible medical information outside of doctors’ offices. My second goal was to determine how patients with serious illnesses sort through the medical information they receive from differing sources. My third goal was to determine how patients with serious illnesses communicate the information they have gathered from sources other than their doctors to their doctors. ^ The primary contribution of the present study is that it initiates a scholarly discussion regarding communication experiences by patients as they learn about their serious illnesses from sources other than their doctors and how they bring the information to their medical interviews. Thus, the present study brings an instructional communication perspective to the literature on doctor-patient relationship. An instructional communication perspective provides better insight on how patients share what they have learned and how they communicate about what they learned with their doctors. I have also responded to scholars in the communication discipline who have called for studying the interpersonal relationships of doctors and patients within their social and cultural contexts. I used the ecological perspective as my theoretical framework to look at the learning environment of the doctor and patient as situated within and affected by a variety of contexts. ^ A qualitative interpretive paradigm guided the study and data analysis. I conducted 22 in-depth interviews with people who had serious illness experiences within the last three years. Participants included thirteen females and nine males, averaging 50 years of age, within a range of 19 to 81 years old. The individual interviews averaged around 90 minutes (ranging from 60-120 minutes). All interviews were audio taped, and transcribed verbatim. ^ Participants in the present study encountered a number of communication experiences outside the health care system with family, friends, employers, co-workers, and other social networks. In addition to these face-to-face interactions, they were exposed to an assortment of media influences, all of which had important effects on how these participants ultimately internalized information and how they interacted with their doctors. Participants described how the combination of going through serious illnesses along with receiving conflicting information and diverse perspectives can be quite frustrating. ^ The results of the present study have implications for communication skills training for doctors and other health care professionals who help patients negotiate the challenges of going through serious illnesses. The study also has implications for communication skills training for patients who could benefit from improving communication with their doctors.^

Subject Area

Speech Communication|Education, Health

Recommended Citation

Garden, Randa Sue (Lumsden), "Learning about serious illnesses: Implications for instructional communication" (2009). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3360084.