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March 18, 2003

Prof examines bedside chatter

Communication studies professor Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater credits a life-threatening illness as motivation for research she has conducted since doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer 20 years ago.

During the course of her illness von Friederichs-Fitzwater, who was studying mass communication, observed changing dynamics with her doctors. “I noticed that the worse the prognosis, the more trouble physicians had in communicating with me.”

She says she wanted to know why medical personnel spoke to her differently as her illness grew more serious and if the experience she had was similar to other patients’. She wanted to help people, especially after her health improved.

She founded Health Communication Research Institute, Inc. in 1989 with the goal of improving the outcomes of health care by improving communication.

Von Friederichs-Fitzwater, also a public relations specialist, uncovered doctors’ tendencies to dominate patient interviews. She says physicians interrupt every 18 seconds and they often change the subject. “When the patient mentions something on an emotional level, the physician usually turns the conversation back to physical symptoms,” she says.

One way she’s ensuring the research helps others is by instructing professionals and medical students. HCRI offers free online classes about pain management and how to treat terminally ill patients. Von Friederichs-Fitzwater says she likes applying the research. “I enjoy being able to translate, educate. I’m happy seeing the research put to use. It’s my passion.”

The institute’s next big project is a $500,000 undertaking to install interactive, video-based kiosks in Sacramento-area community centers, churches and schools. They will dispense medical information in several languages including Russian and Hmong. “We’re trying to reach at-risk populations who don’t have access to quality health information and change risky health behavior,” she says.

For more information, visit the institute’s website at


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