Early in her academic career, Taylen Hitchcock (BS ’20) learned that information is power. It could be used for good but could also be used to spread harm. With that in mind, she embarked on a project that could be used to help the developing world manage future health crises, such as those posed by the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The University of Tulsa alumna and London School of Economics master’s graduate combined her studies in communications and biology to identify how public officials could better reach marginalized populations during health emergencies. Specifically, Hitchcock helped develop a document on “infodemiology,” or the combination of information and medicine. She and her colleagues examined how health information was spread in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal populations.
Hitchcock’s infodemiology work was done under the auspices of the African Health Observatory Platform on Health Systems and Policies, which operates in conjunction with the World Health Organization. Inside those efforts were discoveries on how early intervention can properly inform people during a health crisis and how accurate information can be used to nip misinformation and disinformation before it becomes a more serious problem.
In one case, Hitchcock and her fellow researchers discovered that deaf populations in sub-Saharan Africa were not getting the information they needed, so a communications plan was formed to reach out to the hearing impaired. These lessons can be applied to future efforts that could save lives whenever the next major health crisis emerges.
A lack of data motivated Hitchcock to become part of the infodemiology project. “There wasn’t much research on that, so it was nice to fill in the gap,” she said.
Getting to a place where Hitchcock could be involved in such high-level health policy work started in the classroom at TU, where professors challenged her to adapt to new concepts quickly.
An interdisciplinary focus
“What the media department was great at was working with students on what interested them,”
Hitchcock said. “They gave me a lot of perspectives. TU really helped me be a leader” at London School of Economics.
That’s what Hitchcock’s professors are shooting for: producing graduates who have the ability to think broadly about problems and then apply their knowledge to building real-world solutions.
“Media Studies’ emphasis upon critical thinking and effective communication can train a new generation of health care providers and policymakers to see problems of health and disease in new ways that create innovative solutions that take into account the full context of patients’ and people’s lives and experiences,” said Emily Contois, TU assistant professor of media studies and one of Hitchcock’s former professors. “Taylen is a fabulous example of what such interdisciplinary training can accomplish, and we are immensely proud of her and all her success.
“Media Studies examines all the ways that humanity can connect, communicate and share information, ideas and feelings. In Taylen’s case, this is not just through health communication materials, like you might expect, but through processing the idea of ‘health’ itself, and how its meaning is constructed through society, culture, history, economics and politics.”
Eventually, Hitchcock plans to attend medical school. First-hand experience at the clinical level will help her continue to make sure people are getting life-saving information during trying times.
Effective communication is important for every career. TU offers undergraduate students a major and a minor option in media studies. Visit the degree information page to learn more.