Communicating about Autoimmune Thyroiditis: Influences on Marriage and Caregiving

Denise K. Scannell

Major Professor: Gary L. Kreps, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Kevin Wright, Carla Fisher

Johnson Center, #244
April 21, 2014, 10:00 AM to 07:00 AM


Autoimmune diseases are one of the most common forms of illnesses in the United States, affecting 23.5 million people (Walsh, 2000). The burden of this disease is disproportionately on women, who sustain 78.8 percent of all cases of autoimmune diseases (NIH, 2002). There is no cure for autoimmune diseases – only a life-long road of treatment of symptoms. Autoimmune diseases are complex to diagnose and treat and on-going social support plays a critical role in patients’ adherence to medications and ultimately their health outcomes. A marriage is a critical source of social support during illness. Marriage is defined within social support research as “strong-tie” support and is often used as a measure of social support. However, the interpretation of needed support and the perception of received support by married couples may be riddled with challenges due to identity transformation once diagnosed with an autoimmune disease as well as due to lack of communication competence within the relationship. Much research has been conducted to examine marriage and illness through the lens of perceived support. This research extends previous research to examine social support intention and interpretation within the context of marital relationships and communication strategies utilized to enable effective support specifically for autoimmune thyroiditis patients, namely Hashimoto’s Disease and Grave’s Disease. Within the framework of Kreps’ Relational Health Communication Competence Model (RHCCM), this research examined the impact of marital social support, coping, identity transformation, and communication on health outcomes and the influences of marital communication interactions on patient perceptions and requests for support as well as their ability to cope with their disease. The study employed both qualitative and quantitative analysis, including a survey of 600 women with autoimmune thyroiditis with questions examining quality of life, coping, communication competence and social support access and perception. Qualified survey participants (n=30) participated in also participated in open-ended interviews to further examine social support, illness identity, coping and communication within the context of marriage and their illness. Results obtained from both the surveys and interviews will be used to develop evidence-based best communication practices for couples to promote effective social support within marital relationships.