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Sent to Coventry? Why how we talk affects how we act

In this weeks edition of the British Medical Journal fellow Acute Physician Zoë Fritz and her colleague Caitríona Cox write eloquently about how the language can we used to disempower and empower patients.

Much of the language that we are using in clinical practice has been in use for a long time. Not quite as long as Florence Nightingale, but probably not far off. Jargon is often linked to specialist knowledge but often adds little value. Whether we send a patient home or discuss with them their ongoing needs shifts focus. Whether patients have poor compliance or a struggling to adhere to their complex medication in a difficult life situation set the scene for any attempts seeking to support the individual.

Much of the language that we are using is tradition, not bad will. But traditions are strong: try looking for a stock-photo for a hospital doctor? White coat? Check! Tie? Check! Male and some grey hair? Check! 30 years ago this might have been reality, but in 2022 is probably isn't. Or at least not where I am working. An interesting test of what language means can be undertaken online: putting 'patient' into a thesaurus I am getting interesting terms including 'sufferer' and 'victim'. language expresses how we think, and how we think shapes how we act, prioritise, feel and support those we work with.

A simple check for the right language is to reverse the roles of sender and receiver: If I would be the patient, would I understand what the language means, and how would I feel about the connotations? And if the language would be used to describe the interaction with a member of my family would I be content that it describes a situation in a way that does suggest different undertones? If people with care needs can use the same language as those healthcare professionals who are supporting them then we have probably found a more enabling level of communication.

Many patients want to be involved in eye-level communication with their teams and the spoken and written language that we use to relay information matters to them, in conversation and while using personal health records. And last but not least empowering language might actually improve outcome. Language matters. Let's use it wisely.

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