Sticky toffee pudding and other NHS jargon

There was an article on the BBC News website this morning about the use of jargon in the NHS.  The Plain English Campaign (PEC) suggests that the NHS is deliberately using confusing jargon to prevent the public from understanding what is going on in the public service.

I will say up front that I have the greatest respect for the PEC and their attempts to encourage companies to produce documentation that can be understood without the need for an advanced qualification in company-ese.  Influenced in no small part by the PEC’s recommendations, most documents where I work at my main job are now in plain English rather than pseudo-legal gobbledygook*.

If the PEC has a fault, though, it is a tendency to consider jargon and technical language as simply A Bad Thing, without considering the context.  One example given in the BBC News story, for instance, is of NHS staff sometimes referring to “sustainability and transformation plans” as “sticky toffee puddings”, which to me looks like a joke (albeit an insider joke) rather than jargon.

Genuine jargon has its place, too: in a busy hospital, an emergency call for CPR for a patient with a STEMI makes sense to the people it needs to make sense to, and is rather quicker than saying that cardio-pulmonary resuscitation is required for a patient having an ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (i.e. a heart attack).

Jargon only becomes a problem when it is used, whether deliberately or unthinkingly, to those who don’t understand it.  At best, this can cause confusion and a delay while the jargon is explained in terms that are more easily understood.  At worst, it can give the impression of deception or white-washing the truth: “hand-offs, inefficiencies and suboptimal advice and information transfers”, another NHS example from the BBC News article, looks like a deliberate attempt to avoid saying outright that things went wrong for a particular patient.

The key message from this is to remember your audience when writing anything.  If you are an IT professional emailing another IT professional, for example, there is no reason not to use acronyms and words like FTPs, DNS, cookies, gateways, and so on: you both know what these things mean, after all.

If you are an IT professional writing a report for a client who thinks a cloud is just a big black thing that drops rain on their head, however, communication will prove much easier if you stick to non-jargon terms that they are likely to understand.


* Although sadly I have yet to gain agreement to my suggestion that, when writing committee minutes, the phrase “the Committee conducted a detailed discussion of this proposal” would be more accurate if replaced with “the Committee waffled unproductively for so long that the Committee Secretary stopped listening”.

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