In a column last year I described the power of storytelling. Compelling stories touch hearts and minds in a way that logic and reason do not.
In order to build the will necessary to transform organisations and make patient safety our highest priority we need to move NHS staff to want to change. If we give ourselves the opportunity to really listen, it is often the language used by patients or their relatives that spurs us to action.
Recently our board invited a patient's relative to talk to us about the end of life care his wife received at our hospital. This had a huge impact on board members and on the subsequent tone of the meeting. But the way language and stories are used needs to be well managed. Time was taken to ensure our visitor talked through what he wanted from the board, the board members knew what to expect and we managed the process sensitively.
Nationally the Patient Safety Campaign is looking for activists who support the cause and agitate for change in their organisation. Using ideas that enable people to visualise what is being talked about is important. We use the analogy of bungee jumping to help people understand the risk associated with inpatient treatment in hospital. Equally compelling is the image we use to convey the extent of harm. For a medium-sized hospital this equals two double-decker buses of inpatients who will experience an adverse event every week.
Finding the right language for different audiences is important. I am thrilled when I hear clinicians describe their journey from cynic to convert and talk about the need to "stop accepting the unacceptable".
Clinicians influence other clinicians and have a huge role to play in introducing the next generation of doctors to ideas about how to reduce harm and improve patient safety. This was brought home to me recently when I realised the language I had used to talk about safety with some junior doctors completely missed the mark.
How we engage patients in this agenda is also a challenge. It is important that we find ways of talking about safety and explain to patients what to expect from us, for example hand washing, checking wristbands and providing clear explanations of medication and procedures. But we need to do this in a way that doesn't undermine their confidence in the care they will get.
Patient safety within the health service is still a relatively new language although a lexicon is building around the discipline. While people are familiar with risk management and health and safety, terms like reliability, human factors and PDSA (plan, do, study, act) cycles are quite new. As with all jargon, they are an important shorthand for assigning meaning within a specific field but we must be careful not to exclude people by using difficult language and concepts.
The language we use needs to resonate with the values of NHS staff. Only then will we unleash the energy required for transformational change.