Great to hear that NHS leaders are being encouraged to think about how they describe what their organisations offer and the people this is for. In her blog The language of leadership: Small words that make a difference, Jules Acton, director of engagement and membership at National Voices, gives an insight into discussions about terminology that occurred during the design of new NHS Leadership Academy professional development programmes.
As she points out, there is no perfect word to fit all occasions – just referring to people, care or services can be overly generic at times. But challenging the use of some common terms – like ‘hard to reach’ or even ‘patient’ – has to be a good thing, especially when this comes from the very top, or from those who have a particularly strong influence within an organisation.
It comes down to both the meaning of a word or term and how this may be perceived. As Jules points out, many people who use health and care services do not consider themselves ‘patients’, and some – pregnant women, for instance – feel quite strongly about being described in this way.
So how do you choose the most suitable terminology? Sometimes you need to dig a bit deeper and consider the connotations; I like that Jules questions the positive nature of ‘innovation’ (although creative new ways of doing things may not always be successful) as opposed to the implicit negativity of ‘replication’ (when copying good practice is surely an admirable approach).
I also tend to share her general distaste for the terms ‘client’ or ‘customer’ – they’re just too linked to commercial business transactions for my liking. Having said that, there is perhaps a place for this sort of description in newly emerging relationships in the sector; if you use a personal budget to employ a personal assistant, for example, although technically an employer are you not also a client or customer, paying for a service?
I’m afraid many of those working in the health and care sector will be dismissive (initially at least) of the need for these types of detailed discussion about what language to use, but as organisations like National Voices and the Patient Information Forum know full well, to feel involved in decisions about their care, people want not just clear but meaningful information they can relate to. If they’re confused, turned off or irritated by how they’re described or addressed by the organisation providing that care, then that’s a backward step, which could well have a detrimental effect on how they engage with services they need.