Telling it like it isn’t: the language of the NHS

I always like it when the newsletter of NHS Networks pops into my inbox with its cheery “ping”.  Not only does it save me lots of time finding out things, but occasionally it brings a dose of real wisdom coupled with wit.  Today’s was no exception with its offering of a front page mini essay on the problems of language in the NHS.  I can think of no better way to share this with our blog readers than to quote it verbatim below, together with a “thank you” to its anonymous author whose frustrations about NHS communication MAC shares and whose humour in the face of frustration we can but admire.

“Language matters. If you want to get people on your side or avoid turning them off, choose your words with care.”As the railways have learnt, promoting mere passengers to customers does nothing to mitigate a poor service. If anything it deepens the irritation. Similarly, having a more elaborate and cunningly worded excuse — “lack of availability of a train crew” or “delays caused by the failure of an earlier service” — does not fool anybody. The facts are as follows: the driver didn’t show up for work and the train broke down; the station is draughty and crowded and you are going to be late for work.”

“The NHS is not like this. There is a genuine desire to communicate, to clarify and to explain but for one reason or another, the harder we try, the less sense we make. We can’t even talk about talking without lapsing into a strange language that sounds like English and even uses English words but in other respects is clearly not English.”

“For example, we insist on “engaging” people, giving them the disturbing impression that either we want to offer them a job as our butler or that we want to marry them, settle down and have children.”

“We refer to people as stakeholders, a meaningless term soon to be adopted by the railways – “stakeholder under the train at Chorleywood” – and which implies a much greater sense of ownership than anybody really wants. We all know it’s our NHS, just as it’s our Inland Revenue, our BBC, our national sewage network and our Parliament, but frankly there’s only so much stakeholding we can do if we’re to leave time for involvement, engagement and consultation.”

“The NHS mistakes its internal language for universal currency. Just as the British Empire was founded on the belief that the world would be better place if it spoke English, worshipped a Church of England God and played a lot of cricket, so the NHS believes that if it speaks loudly and slowly enough and keeps peddling the same dull linguistic tokens to the natives they will eventually sign up to the programme.”

“Like any large organisation, the NHS has a language of its own. The jargon may or may not promote understanding among those who speak it. For everyone else it is completely baffling. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we will start making sense.”

Next week’s instalment is on polyclinics, billed as “where to take your parrot when it becomes unwell”.  I can hardly wait.

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