This past weekend has seen one of the most glaring examples I’ve seen of how not to do it when trying to communicate with the general public.
The Mail on Sunday carried a report about a 58-year old lady, Hannah Barnes, who suspected she was having a heart attack and hurried to Palmer Community Hospital in Jarrow (a walk-in centre) hoping they would assist her. Mrs Barnes had already suffered a heart attack six months ago.
Upon arriving at the walk-in centre, the receptionist, according to the report, refused to call an ambulance because staff are not allowed to do so. Mrs Barnes had to search her handbag for her mobile phone and call an ambulance herself to take her to a hospital where she could be treated.
According to the Mail Mrs Barnes “was admitted to hospital where she has stayed for the past week in a critical condition after suffering her second heart attack in just six months”.
The paper quoted Mrs Barnes’ sister as saying:
“The whole family is devastated. I could have lost my sister. Would making a free phone call really have harmed them?
“A medical centre is meant to be the place you can turn to. But she had to get help on her own. She is full of life and would do anything for anyone. She didn’t deserve this.
“She also suffered a serious heart attack in January. She was outside the walk-in centre and went to get help. She asked a receptionist if they could ring an ambulance as she was having a heart attack.
“But she said she couldn’t do that and she would have to ring herself. She doesn’t always have her mobile phone with her. If she hadn’t had it, she would have died.”
Now, that’s language a newspaper reader will understand. In just a few sentences Mrs Barnes’ sister conveyed the family’s fury and incredulity over what had happened. Her words would have resonated with the public.
You would have thought that the institution involved in this controversy would have wanted to respond using similarly plain language and to come across as a caring, understanding body. However, institutions often don’t think like that. Instead they prefer to hide behind their own in-house mumbo-jumbo.
Hence, a spokesman for Northern Doctors Urgent Care Ltd (who, I assume, run the walk-in centre) came up with this load of institutional gobbledegook:
“Our organisational procedures dictate that when any patient presents to the reception, the receptionist will undertake a brief visual assessment of the patient’s presenting condition.
‘”They will refer to our organisational urgency criteria which clearly identifies the symptoms associated with patients presenting with emergency, urgent or non-urgent conditions, and the actions to be taken accordingly.
“Therefore, when a patient presents to a receptionist requesting an ambulance, the receptionist will briefly identify the physical presenting condition of the patient and seek immediate clinical advice from one of our GPs; while, if necessary, calling 999.”
Let me try to assist the spokesman with a little help in how to turn this tortuous statement into language members of the public (to whom his organisation is, after all, accountable) might understand.
“Organisational procedures”? Would you be using procedures that are not part of your organisation? You don’t hear football referees citing the LBW rule.
“Organisational urgency criteria”? Emergency guidelines?
“When any patient presents”? If I go to my doctor’s, I do not “present”. I don’t come armed with 85 minutes of PowerPoint slides or pretend to be Ricky Gervais hosting the Golden Globes. I “turn up” at the surgery, “arrive for my appointment” or (and the type of hospital involved in this case is a bit of a giveaway) “walk in”.
“Patient’s presenting condition”? I don’t say to my GP: “My presenting condition is sneezing and runny eyes”. I say: “I’ve got bad hay fever.”
“Clinical advice from a GP”? Would a GP give non-clinical advice? I hope not.
So here’s my best attempt to translate the spokesman’s statement into plain language:
“Our rules mean that when a patient comes to the hospital, the receptionist will assess their condition. Based on a list of symptoms, the receptionist will then decide whether the patient’s case is an emergency or an urgent or non-urgent case and what action needs to be taken. When the patient asks the receptionist to call an ambulance, they will briefly assess their condition, obtain a second opinion from a GP and call 999 if necessary.”
I stress that the above re-write is my best shot at decoding what the spokesman said. Even Alan Turing, armed with the Enigma machine, would have struggled.
I will leave it to the regulatory authorities in Tyne & Wear to decide whether any medical negligence took place on the part of the walk-in centre.
What I can say is that the hospital is guilty of the most horrendous linguistic crimes. Oh that we had an International Court in The Hague that could deal with such offences!
This is an institution talking to itself, using jargon as camouflage.
At best, language like this comes across to the public as the body involved talking down to them, in effect saying: “We don’t expect you to understand our way of working and, quite frankly, because you are not part of our closed circle, you don’t need to know.”
At worst, it makes the organisation in question look guilty, as though they are deliberately using unfathomable language to cover up the truth.
However this story ends, the hospital has already lost in terms of public perception. By speaking in plain language, Mrs Barnes’ family will clearly have the sympathy of the majority of people. If newspaper readers believe, rightly or wrongly, that the hospital has behaved coldly and heartlessly, the spokesman’s language will reinforce that impression.
Don’t just rely on what I’ve said for proof of how such language can backfire. Here’s a reaction to the spokesman’s statement from a Mail reader on the paper’s website:
“Translation of the Northern Doctors Urgent Care Ltd spokesman’s self-serving claptrap: a medically unqualified secretary gives you a quick look over from behind her desk and decides if you are ill or not.”