New Book Examines Impact of Rhetoric in Health Care

Scholars explore the rhetoric of issues ranging from mental illness to pandemics

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The impact of rhetoric on how society perceives different health issues and manages health-care policy is the subject of a new volume of essays featuring works on health ethics, mental illness and pandemics.

Rhetoric of Healthcare: Essays Toward a New Disciplinary Inquiry, edited by Barbara Heifferon, professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Stuart Brown, professor of English at New Mexico State University, is one of the first books to specifically address how rhetoric is used to frame health-care issues, shape public opinion on certain illnesses and policies and either enhance or inhibit health management and care in a new sub-discipline called “Medical Rhetoric.”

“Rhetorical strategies have always been used by governments to manage public response to health crises, from the plague to the AIDS epidemic, while also shaping how certain issues are perceived and regulated. The current media blizzard over swine flu and the public stigma surrounding mental illness are just two examples,” says Heifferon.

“The rhetorical nature of our interaction with health messages—even with highly technical information—depends upon both a multitude of complex information systems and our place within those systems,” she adds. “These often generic communications frame critical health-care decisions and govern our responses to medical procedures. In some cases, this is literally life-and-death rhetoric.”

The book includes essays on responses to pandemics, chronic diseases, mental health, sexual dysfunction, health business and public policy. Contributors include Steven B. Katz, the Pearce Chair of Professional Communication at Clemson University, and Stephen Bernhardt, the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick Jr. Chair in Writing at the University of Delaware.

“Rhetorical analysis can be viewed as a collection of methods that necessarily addresses specific language features, but that also attends to more global and inclusive understandings of text from historical and cultural perspectives,” notes Heifferon. “Through this book we propose that the combinations and unique emphases of rhetoricians reveal insights not available through other disciplinary means, especially in light of the humanist premises that underlie most rhetorical investigations.”

She hopes that a better understanding of how rhetoric impacts health-care decision-making will ultimately improve delivery of care and the development of public polices related to health issues.