Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 00:02 UK

Doctors worried about NHS jargon

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

NHS staff talking
Doctors say they can be left confused by management-speak

The use of jargon is a blight on the NHS and could end up harming patient care, doctors and campaigners say.

The British Medical Association and Plain English Campaign have criticised the use of words such as service users and clients to describe patients.

They said gobbledygook phrases were causing confusion for staff and patients alike.

The government agreed jargon was a problem and said it was working with NHS trusts to improve communication.

The issue was debated at the annual meeting of the BMA consultants group on Wednesday.

Client or service user (for patient)
Efficiency savings and disinvestment (cuts)
Let's take this discussion off-line (let's talk about this afterwards)
Proof of concept (pilot)

West Yorkshire consultant anaesthetist Peter Bamber, who proposed the motion that was passed, said: "We see all sorts of phrases creeping into the NHS.

"Some of it is an attempt to destigmatise conditions, but I do not think there is anything wrong with the use of 'patient'.

"Using something else suggests the condition may be something the person should just snap out of and that is damaging in itself."

Other phrases highlighted included "disinvestments" instead of "cuts", "proof of concept" instead of "pilot" and "let's take this discussion off-line" in place of "let's talk about this afterwards".

And a document about a new pay deal for nurses and NHS support staff was also highlighted.

It included the passage: "Where the combined value of the above payments before actual assimilation remains greater than the combined value of the payments after assimilation, the former level of pay will be protected."

Dr Paul Hobday, a GP in Kent who has complained to his local trust about the use of jargon, said: "I got guidance recently asking me to record the ethnicity of patients. It was five pages long and full of management speak when it only needed to be a few sentences.

"The problem with this is that either the doctor does not bother reading it or spends too much time doing so which takes them away from patients."


The British Medical Association said much of the jargon had been found in communications between managers and doctors.

But the Plain English Campaign also said it thought such language was creeping into public consultations run by NHS trusts and the Department of Health.

Spokeswoman Marie Clair said: "The problem is that use of these phrases spread very quickly. We have had lots of feedback from people who are upset or worried about this.

"When it comes to medicine the confusion can be over life or death issues. It comes down to arrogance, but I would say doctors are not exempt from using inaccessible language."

"Where the combined value of the above payments before actual assimilation remains greater than the combined value of the payments after assimilation, the former level of pay will be protected"

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the government was working with health managers to improve the use of language.

"Patient focus groups show that jargon can still sometimes be a problem in the NHS.

"It is important that the Department of Health and the NHS get health messages across to the public in language they understand."

Whistle-blowing was also one of the key themes of the one-day conference, which was held at the BMA's London headquarters.

A survey of 565 doctors found that seven in 10 had raised concerns about care or bullying, but nearly half of those were unaware that anything had been done by their NHS trust.

Dr Jonathan Fielden, chairman of the BMA's consultants committee, said: "This culture of inactivity and despair is preventing issues from coming to light and putting patient care at risk."

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