The language used in the health sector can seem remote, robotic and worse, uncaring. Neil Taylor argues that plain speaking medical professionals would make everyone’s lives better.
The health sector is suffering from a disease, and it’s a disease we see in lots of our clients. The words we all use day to day have been replaced by cold, corporate management speak. Even when talking about something we should all find positive and reassuring – like “good quality care”, it becomes curiously alien.
Outcomes. Best practice. Clinical pathways. Care delivery. I’m sure you could add your own to make a long, long list.
As an approach to communication, it’s certainly not “patient-centric”. These are words with no bedside manner. Healthcare providers are dealing with people at their most vulnerable, at a time when more than ever, your readers will thank you for using language which is clear, human, natural, and, fundamentally, easy – after all, the rest of their lives at that moment might well be complicated, scary and difficult.
Not everything we see is bad. One colleague spotted a leaflet at her local GP surgery about the early signs of bowel cancer. It said “If … you’ve had blood in your poo … you need to tell your doctor”. You can’t get more straightforward than that; no euphemisms, no beating round the bush.
Another colleague is currently struggling with broken fingers. Her doctor told her that her fingers would be “swelly” for a while and that if her tendons “ping off” he’d “screw them back on”. Clearly, the odd individual physician or brave communicator isn’t afraid to sound like a human being.
It’s not a great surprise; most of us have spent most of our lives being trained that to write something serious, you have to write something formal. It goes right back to the way we’re taught to write scientific experiments at school. Then, get to medical school and much of what you learn switches into Latin.
We’re not suggesting that medics should drop the technical vocabulary of their profession – jargon is fine between consenting adults. But we should be thinking if it’s the best way of communicating with ordinary people. And of course, it’s not just the language of medicine that’s problematic here. The jargon of management and government can be just as baffling.
As I was being prodded, poked and wheeled round the chilly corridors of King’s College Hospital on my recent stay, the staff often asked me what I did for a living (possibly just to distract me from the imminent unanaesthetised unscrewing of pins from the bones in my leg).
Writing more effectively is something people often say they need help with. Yet many people working in the health service are brilliant communicators face to face: compassionate, natural and human. My advice to them would be simple: write more like you speak. Don’t try to sound clever, or impress some consultant somewhere. Your first duty is to your patient.
This is, of course, easier said than done. Changing the words you use or the way you write to a patient often means challenging many of the things you’ve been taught, and subtly subverting the prevailing culture. But it pays dividends.
In the private sector, we’ve seen how clearer instructions can cut calls from confused customers. Deal with complaints better, and fewer people keep complaining. Which means you can get on with what you were supposed to be doing. What seems like a nice-to-have suddenly writes its own business case. And in a time of cuts, there aren’t many things that make the public happier, allow employees to be more themselves, as well as making your processes more efficient. That’s an “outcome” that’s worth thinking about.