When professionals are immersed in their own field of endeavour they need language that expresses concepts clearly and concisely. A single phrase spoken by one colleague to another can encompass years of experience and reflect laser sharp accuracy.
But the boundary between professional and ‘general public’ creates quite different needs. In the arena of health this is especially sensitive. Put simply: your doctor needs to speak to you with words you understand.
It’s always tricky to use plain language without ‘speaking down’ to the listener — it’s not a matter of ‘dumbing down’, so much as it is carefully choosing words, and understanding how much ‘focus’ is relevant.
For me, a headache is a headache. For a skilled medical practitioner I could suppose that there may be 20 different types of headache, all with different names. I’m happy for my doctor to tell me the official name for my headache, but for me it’s still just a headache.
Some American research has found that around half the population may not understand what their doctor says. I imagine it’s the same everywhere:
Efforts to give health information a plain language makeover have been gaining steam across health care since the Institute of Medicine’s Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion in 2004. This report concluded traditional health information is too complex for roughly 93 million Americans—half the adult population—to understand.
Since then, the American Medical Association and federal government have also focused on health literacy. Many plain language resources aimed at improving health literacy have sprung up online. Most focus on specific populations or illnesses.
[Group Health Cooperative Center for Health Studies. “Plain Language For Health Care Professionals To Improve Communication With Patients.” ScienceDaily 9 July 2009. 11 July 2009.]
When you talk to people about your work, how do you express it? Do you produce tightly-focused, potentially incomprehensible utterances, or do you find ways to meet the listener at their level of understanding?
For me as a trainer and writer it’s the challenge I meet every time I produce a piece of work. I tend to regard it as ‘creative lying’ — sometimes the best way to convey a truth is with an inaccuracy. 🙂