Like any industry, health has its own terminology to get used to. There are of course all your well known terms that even the media throws around without much thought – public health, A&E, rationing. But there are also plenty of niche terms to describe some of the work surrounding healthcare – and particularly person-centred care – that can confuse even the simplest of concepts.
Personally, I’ve always struggled with the duplication of language in healthcare. There are often many words used to describe if not exactly the same process, then very similar ones. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure out that social prescribing is basically the same as signposting and referring.
It can sometimes feel unnecessary to have these duplications, but just like a home is not the same as a house, or a property, or a dwelling, these variances can hold subtle differences for the people using those services.
I very clearly remember the lecture I received when I told an elderly neighbour of mine that I worked for a health charity. “The problem with health nowadays” he informed me, “is that everyone wants to come up with a label for something. You didn’t get ADHD or depression when I was a kid. It was just part of life. You just got on with it”.
Now while I personally don’t subscribe to this way of thinking, there is something to be said about the apparent need to have medically approved language to describe something not in itself medical. After all, will a GP be more inclined to refer their patients to me if I call my work “peer support”? Will their inclination change if I call the exact same group a “community project”? So while medical jargon might support healthcare professionals it can also isolate many patients.
When you poll healthcare professionals, many of them say they engage in shared-decision making and personalised care planning with all of their patients. When you poll patients, you often get a different story.
The problem is that phrases like ‘shared-decision making’, ‘care planning’ and even ‘person-centred care’ are vague and open to interpretation. Talking about ‘personalisation’ doesn’t really mean anything on its own. We need to ensure context is explained and definitions are clarified.
Why it matters
If we want to spread the person-centred care agenda we need to keep an eye on the words we are using. We need to be inclusive in our language and more importantly put the power in the hands of the people we’re talking about.
If we want to empower people to take control of their own health and healthcare, they need to be free to use the language that resonates with them and their experiences. Charities, healthcare professionals and the health system need to be able to recognise and use these terms too. Instead of getting wrapped up in our own semantics, we need to listen and take note while keeping in mind that at any given moment we might not all be talking about the same thing.