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Katharine (Kate) Sweeny

Associate Professor of Psychology
Kate Sweeny
Besting the Bad News
We all have to deal with potential or actual bad news, often in the context of health care. How we manage such communications can shape our lives for good or not so good. Professor Sweeny’s research suggests helpful strategies for giving, preparing for and coping with bad news to emphasize the positive.

Areas of Expertise

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • UC Regents’ Fellowship
  • National Institute of Mental Health Predoctoral National Research Service Award
  • Pioneer Psychology Award
  • Gerber Award for Social Psychology

Q&A

Q: How does your work benefit society?
My ultimate goal is to provide people with some relief from suffering when they face difficult or painful experiences, particularly about their health. This process often begins with uncertainty as people await health news that may be bad, and so one aspect of my research examines the best ways to manage this type of uncertainty. Other aspects of my research examine the best ways to give bad news in hopes of understanding how doctors and nurses can disclose unpleasant health information in a way that minimizes patients' distress and prompts the most beneficial responses to the news. As a whole, my research can offer guidance to people who are facing difficult situations by providing strategies to minimize anxiety and distress and to maximize the likelihood of making good decisions.

Q: What are the big challenges researchers in your field are trying to answer?
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by social scientists who study health is to understand how to encourage people to engage in healthy behaviors and avoid unhealthy behaviors. Despite the vast amounts of available information about how to stay healthy and maximize quality of life, too often people ignore or reject this information and continue to engage in detrimental health behaviors. Figuring out the best ways to encourage people to change their behavior, and then to maintain those changes once made, is a task that will keep many health behavior researchers busy for an entire career.

Q: What is least understood about your research?
The biggest myth I face when I talk about my research is that what I do isn't "scientific." My research rarely requires lab coats, chemicals, or microscopes, and to many people these are the hallmarks of science. In fact, science is simply a way of asking questions and finding answers to those questions. Just like a biologist or a chemist or a physicist, psychology researchers develop theories, form hypotheses based on those theories, and then test those hypotheses in carefully controlled studies that are designed to provide clear answers to our questions of interest. The only difference is that we study human behavior, a topic that is certainly familiar to everyone but that requires significant expertise to study in a way that provides useful information that we can then use to improve people's lives.

Q: As a psychology researcher, how did you get into clinical studies?
I was trained as a social psychologist, which means I initially studied the building blocks of human behavior rather than the applications of those behaviors in clinical or other "real world" settings. However, my research interests always had clear implications for people giving and receiving health care, and thus I gradually began to seek out opportunities to study my research questions in that context. As much as I love studying human behavior simply for the sake of answering interesting questions, I am passionate about bringing that research out of the lab and into the lives of people who are coping with life's many hurdles and hardships. The process of making connections with health care facilities can be slow at times, but my position at UCR has opened up amazing opportunities to partner with the new medical school and specifically with a local hospital that will serve as a training ground for medical students and residents.

Q: What are the goals of your project with the Riverside County Regional Medical Center?
My project in collaboration with RCRMC has several goals: 1) to examine the quality of patients' experiences at this hospital in the context of outpatient surgery, 2) to examine patients' feelings about surgery, both prior to and following the surgical intervention, and 3) to examine consequences of patient expectations and patient-physician communication for patient satisfaction and other key outcomes in the context of surgery.

Q: Who is the most influential public voice in your field and what are they saying?
Although my field is fortunate to include numerous influential voices, one person who comes to mind is Dr. William Klein. Dr. Klein is a social and health psychologist who was a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh conducting ground-breaking research on risk perception, health decision-making and health communication until his recent appointment as the associate director of the Behavioral Research Program at the National Cancer Institute. In his position at NCI, Dr. Klein has the opportunity to advocate for the role of behavioral research in cancer prevention and treatment and to influence the funding priorities for such research. In collaboration with others at NCI, most notably Dr. Robert Croyle (Director, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences), Dr. Klein is serving as a key voice in the national discussion about the best ways to mitigate the incidence and impact of cancer through behavior change.

Q: What does “Living the Promise” mean to you?
For me, living the promise means seeking out and grabbing hold of the many opportunities afforded by the resources and people at UCR, with the ultimate goal of achieving excellence in both my research pursuits and my efforts to involve and inspire the unique student body that makes up our campus.

Q: Do you have a personal hero?
My mother is both an inspiration and a hero to me. She grew up in extremely difficult circumstances, one consequence of which was a lack of opportunity for a college education. Despite this setback, my mother became a voracious consumer of every kind of knowledge and is one of the sharpest, best informed, most interested (and interesting) people I know. She has faced many other hardships throughout her life, including a treacherous but ultimately successful battle against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, yet she faces every obstacle with grace and generosity. I often look to my mother for insights into the harsh and often unexpected realities of facing a devastating diagnosis and fighting to live another day. She is one of my biggest fans and greatest supporters, and I aspire to do work that reflects her indelible influence on my life.

Q: What is it about UCR that makes this a great place to do your research?
The nature of the UCR student body and the surrounding community provides an opportunity to study populations that are often neglected in psychological research. So much of the research in my field relies on racially, ethnically and socioeconomically homogeneous research participants, and this problem limits the applicability of many research findings. I have a unique opportunity to examine my research questions in a context that is diverse by nearly any definition, thus allowing me to both examine differences between various groups of people and draw conclusions that are highly generalizable.
Kate Sweeny“We’re examining the best ways to give bad news in hopes of understanding how doctors and nurses can disclose unpleasant health information in a way that minimizes patients’ distress and prompts the most beneficial responses to the news.”

—Kate Sweeny
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