How Can Our Language Help Us to Succeed? or “Acronyms and Alphabet Soup”


1st March 2012

It has often been said that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Healthcare is, in many ways, similar.

In common with most industries, health care workers with different interests, locations, and nationalities have developed their own lexicons. These special terms and short-hand ways of speaking make it easier for specialists in their field to communicate quickly and precisely. However, specialist language can make the job of reaching out to people across the wide spectrum of jobs and experience extremely difficult.

Introducing information technology (IT) tools that will change the way people work, brings with it a brand-new range of jargon and techno-talk.  This additional dimension can further confound communication because many of the people involved will come from IT backgrounds and have a rich vocabulary of their own.

When thinking about our approach to change-leadership in healthcare it is important to be aware of the impact that our language and the terms we use has on those around us.

The use of sentences that contain several words that our colleagues may not be familiar with often leads to communication problems and confusion. Understanding one another creates trust and rapport that are essential to successful introduction of any change.

Leaders and managers will have seen many examples of language getting in the way of good communication.

Imagine yourself in the mind of a specialist consultant doctor or a nurse when the “IT professional” sent to help you starts talking about smart cards, single sign on, the tracking board, results review, decision support, RIS, LIMS, order communications, and banner bars. Think of how some of these terms might be misinterpreted and the response that the clinician might have.

Painting a mental picture of the future and how it differs from the present is a great tool to support change leadership. Communication skills can help to make sure that everyone is working toward the same vision for the future.

One helpful technique to share ideas effectively is to avoid using acronyms in conversation without checking that the audience understands what they mean. Otherwise a conversation can quickly devolve to an alphabet-soup lecture and the opportunity to share ideas effectively is lost.

When writing it will help the reader if you spell out any acronym the first time it is used and to then put the acronym in parenthesis. This provides an anchor point for people to refresh their memories when the acronym is used later in the text. There are some well-recognized and very important guidelines for the use of acronyms in business communication. Some more information about the correct use of acronyms can be found here.

Three ways for taking healthcare to the next level are to improve communication between patients and the people who make care happen; to collaborate more effectively with colleagues and other participants in the healthcare systems; and to include the appropriate people in decision making. These techniques can only work well for us in leading change if we master the techniques of good communication.

If we keep language simple, relevant, and frame it such that that someone who does not work in healthcare  would understand what we are saying then we will be one step closer to achieving our overall goals.

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