I came across an interesting archive news item from the Telegraph the other day. Dating back to the British Medical Association’s consultants conference a few years ago, it claimed that doctors were often as confused by gobbledygook, over-complicated writing and jargon as patients and pretty much everyone else.
One GP said he had a received a five-page document asking him to record the ethnicity of his patients – a simple request that he pointed out could have been made in just a few short sentences.
That sort of thing is just annoying (and time consuming), but it becomes a much more serious matter when clinicians struggle to make sense of legislation they are expected to implement and guidelines they need to follow. According to the Telegraph story, an anaesthetist complained he had been sent an official NHS document describing a common procedure that he could make “neither head nor tail of”. Even the most experienced medical professionals can worry whether they’re doing the right thing or not because information is unclear.
The situation does not seem to be improving. In 1993 the Plain English Campaign presented its Golden Bull award to the NHS for its 229-word definition of a bed. A 2013 Golden Bull contender is an NHS strategic document.
The Plain English Campaign describes it as “atrociously reliant on jargon and ‘in house’ impenetrable waffle”. For instance, the campaign suggests these lines in the current version – “Recap the goals and objectives of the programme which will result in a recommendation on the future shape of health and social care services … This will lead to a public consultation exercise on the proposals which will be undertaken collectively, on behalf of the wider system, by local Clinical Commissioning Groups” – be simply replaced with: “Speak to the public about how we can improve.”