UO linguist to study health care communication for older adults

Many factors contribute to communication struggles between aging patients and their healthcare providers, and University of Oregon linguist Melissa Baese-Berk hopes to boil those difficulties down to their linguistic elements and improve communication in the health care setting. 

Baese-Berk’s project, “Context-specific Speech Perception and Barriers to Successful Communication Between Healthcare Providers and Aging Patients,” has received $250,000 in funding over four years from the James S. McDonnell Foundation. Alongside her three co-investigators from the University of Nebraska and Indiana University, Baese-Berk, an associate professor of linguistics and the David M. and Nancy L. Petrone Faculty Scholar, hopes to lessen communication struggles for older patients in health care settings such as noisy hospitals.

The McDonnell Foundation is a Missouri-based private philanthropic institution that works to improve the quality of life. After hearing that the 21st Century Science Initiative Awards were looking to fund projects in the “Understanding Human Cognition” category, Baese-Berk’s team applied for the grant.

“We felt like this category was really in line with the things that we were planning on doing and had already started working on,” she said. Her project was one of eight funded in the category by the McDonnell Foundation.

Baese-Berk and her team have begun evaluating many factors in health care communication, such as patient age, background location noise, and the diversity of both patient populations and provider populations. 

In the early fact-finding phase of their research, Baese-Berk and her team are looking at both the familiarity and frequency of use of medical jargon within health care settings. While their findings are still preliminary, Baese-Berk has observed that frequency of a word’s use, not familiarity of a word, matters most in health care communication.

Words that are familiar, but used very infrequently, are difficult for people, especially older patients, to understand.

Through the new funding, the research team will conduct three phases of research: first, an in-lab background research phase; second, a multifaceted approach to collecting real-world health care communication experiences; and third, diversifying the populations studied in their research.

Now more than ever, Baese-Berk sees the value of research in the field.

“We started this project slightly before the pandemic,” she said. “Of course, the pandemic put into even starker relief that this is a major problem that affects groups differently.”

Baese-Berk and her team hope the findings from their research can have a positive impact on the medical field at large, but they especially hope to make interfacing with the healthcare system easier for older patients.

“Trying to make those experiences more positive from a communication standpoint seems like something that's actually a tractable thing we could do,” Baese-Berk said. “Changing the way medicine is structured in the US, in general, feels really, really daunting. But changing the way we communicate within medicine feels, at least to me, a little bit more tractable.”

By Alyson Johnston, College of Arts and Sciences