Health Perspective: Why Language Matters

Health Perspective: Why Language Matters

When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Check your phone, write back to your friend on WhatsApp and text your mum to let her know that you’ll call her later. Throughout these actions, you are most likely unconsciously using language in different ways. From the hashtags on an Instagram post to ordering your flat white, your instinctive tailoring of language in any given moment is key in how you communicate effectively.

In the Health Team, we consider language styles and how we use them as a priority. This comes down to the wide variety of stakeholders we engage with daily. For example, an email to be shared with a patient advocacy group shouldn’t be cluttered with corporate jargon, the tone should be familiar, supportive and above all accessible to the public vs. an email to a doctor, where we might use more complex language as we discuss scientific or medical topics.

These different streams of language are so valuable and in some situations the lack of alignment between two parties in a conversation can cause problems. Take for example an article written by John Walsh, Sickening, gruelling or frightful: how doctors measure pain”. The article highlights how patients and healthcare professionals are not aligned when it comes to the language of pain. This language, perhaps one of the most important ones we will use is vital in ensuring patients are treated as quickly and effectively as possible.

Most healthcare professionals would have studied The McGill Pain Questionnaire, a narrative for pain developed in the 1970s. It puts a word of pain (e.g. stabbing, sickening, sore) next to a level, the score of the patient will then be used to determine what form of pain treatment they should be given.

While this questionnaire was a huge step forward in supporting patients, it was created to provide quantitative measures of clinical pain so people could then be treated statistically. However, the language used in the test does not line up with how patients are describing their pain.

The answer? Take the time to understand how your audience likes to be spoken to, take into account their understanding of the topic you are discussing with them and above all cut out the jargon.

How does this work in practice? The NHS has decided to re-jig the language it uses on its website, to make it more understandable for patients. This move is part of a motion to make NHS content more user-friendly by 2020. Sara Wilcox, Content Designer at NHS Digital has said that using simpler language could save lives – a benefit that everyone can understand.

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