ICYMI, 20 October was Drop the Jargon Day. I missed it, which was a minor bummer, because I hate jargon. My current beef is with the phrase ‘reaching out’. I don’t even know why I hate it so much. I think it’s to do with the insidious way strangers started reaching out to me via email, when writing to or the similarly tactile getting in touch used to suffice. I also hate ‘touching base’ and virtually anything that involves the word ‘paradigm’.
Admittedly, having very little experience with the corporate world, I’ve probably suffered far less than many people. I’ve never had to deal with ‘KPIs’ or ‘core competencies’, and only rarely with ‘action’ being used as a verb. But it’s not just the corporate sector that loves jargon. The names of state government departments change, it seems, with every election. Generally, it just means new letterhead; mindless peeing on the rocks in the name of rebranding.
But the logic behind Drop the Jargon Day is a little less frivolous, and it’s actually pretty cool. According to their website, 6 out of 10 people in Australia have ‘low health literacy’, meaning they have difficulty accessing health information and the health system. According to this report, poor health literacy skills are linked to ‘poorer health knowledge, poorer health status, higher mortality, increased hospitalisations and higher health care costs’. Drop the Jargon Day encourages health and community services professionals, as well as those employed in local government, to pledge to use plain English, to avoid jargon and technical language, and to actively check that their patient, client or consumer has understood them.
While Drop the Jargon Day was an Australian initiative, we’re not the only country struggling with prolix med-speak. In the UK, the NHS has been criticised for its long-winded style of communication. In December 2014, an Indian study found that use of jargon significantly hampered cardiologists’ communication with patients, particularly young adults. A similar study in the United States found that doctors use ‘unclarified jargon’ in their exchanges with diabetes patients of limited health literacy.
It’s not that medical shorthand is inherently problematic or useless. Those employed in health and community services are trained in jargon, and encouraged to use it. When specialised medical language, acronyms and abbreviations are being tossed around between people with the same level of health literacy, it makes communication faster and easier. It’s a kind of code-switching – that nifty thing that happens when a speaker alternates between two languages (or between two dialects or registers of the same language) within the same conversation. The problem is when physicians and other health professionals fail to moderate their language according to context; when they’re unable to switch from medical language to plain English.
Health practitioners who over-use technical terms and specialised language create distance, however unintentionally, between themselves and patients with limited health literacy. This can make patients feel unconfident or uncomfortable asking questions and clarifying information, so they’re divested of agency in decisions affecting their health and wellbeing. There’s also the obvious potential for instructions or advice to be misunderstood – and for disenfranchised users of the healthcare system to simply turn away, not seeking further treatment or care.
Over on the Drop the Jargon webpage, participants are invited to share their experiences. What was it like? Did you find it difficult? Did you learn anything? Some have found it harder than they’d expected; many found it easier, noting their workplaces already encouraged the use of plain English. ‘It was harder than I thought,’ writes Alison, an employee of the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health. ‘We are so used to “in house” terminology which is […] meaningless to anyone outside our immediate networks.’ She notes that such language seems ‘exclusive’ and ‘elitist’ – ‘the opposite of what we are trying to do’.
It’s not always easy to change your language. And when your workplace is full of technical language and jargon, it’s natural to adopt it. But when it comes to healthcare in particular, it’s imperative that workers remain patient- or client-centric, and part of that means not only communicating clearly, but checking in to ensure they’ve been understood. The Drop the Jargon website offers links to a plain-language thesaurus and plain-language medical dictionary, both helpful tools. Most of the time, though, all it takes is an awareness of who you’re speaking to; an acknowledgement that as a user of a specialised language and jargon, you’re part of a language ‘in-group’ that doesn’t include everyone.
Of course, there’s no single kind of plain English. An elderly person may have entirely different obstacles to an adolescent with low English proficiency, for instance, when it comes to medical language and jargon. In any case, language is fluid and constantly changing. This is why it’s so important to treat individuals as such, and to adjust one’s speech according to context. Watered down, the principle of Occam’s razor essentially states that the simplest explanation is generally the correct one. We might say the same for the delivery of the explanation, too – clear, pared-back language is the best bet.
Photo: duncan c / Flickr