Drop the jargon

Tomorrow is Drop the Jargon day here in Australia. According to the campaign website, the aim of the day is … for professionals in Australian health, community services and local government to challenge themselves to use plain language.

People working in the health space are being urged to take a pledge to assist Australians who have low literacy make sense of health information and help them navigate our health system. Six out of ten people in Australia have low health literacy, so there is a real need to make sure our messages and information are presented in a way understandable to everyone.

The pledge asks people to:

  • Use plain language in all communication
  • Not use acronyms
  • Explain medical and other technical terminology
  • Check that information has been understood by your clients
  • Work with a professional interpreter when necessary
  • Politely point out when your colleagues use jargon

Diabetes is a condition rife with jargon. I’ve said before: it is like another language. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to popping in acronyms, technical terminology and assuming everyone knows what I am talking about.

The website includes a link to a handy Plain Language Thesaurus to assist with finding simpler, clearly and less ‘jango-istic’ words when writing health information.

When considering writing in this manner, a lot of sensitivities and intricacies about different conditions are lost. For example, the thesaurus suggests replacing ‘diabetes’ with ‘elevated sugar in the blood’. (Amusingly, the same document suggests – just a page or two down – to replace ‘elevate’ with ‘raise, lift, make higher’.) Obviously, this doesn’t provide a particularly rounded definition or explanation of diabetes, and those of us who ‘get’ this space and understand the words we use when talking about it could criticise the ‘dumbing down’ of what diabetes is all about.

But think about it. If you were new to the diabetes game – just diagnosed or a family member was just diagnosed – and your health literacy was considered low, then this is probably a good starting point. It is certainly better than ‘a touch of sugar’, which are the words used by some healthcare professionals STILL when telling people what diabetes is.

I guess the dilemma for me – as someone who does a lot of writing about diabetes – is that I know that there are some people who want and need more information. Frequently, I write for people whose health literacy is of a higher standard, and there is a need to write at an appropriate level for this target group too. They want – and are able – to read technical and quite difficult jargon.

But I can never ever assume that is the case for everyone. When writing for this blog, I use language very much the way I speak – whatever comes into my head, thoughts going at a million miles an hour, lots of jargon and, if my hands weren’t flying across the keyboard, they would be flying around the air. It’s not really great for people whose health literacy is not high.

However, when writing for work, I am far more conscious of not doing those things. But I suspect, I am not conscious enough. Which is why I will be taking the pledge, and why I think this is a terrific initiative for those of us working in the health space.