The Confusing Language of Health Care

They may as well have been speaking Klingon.

That’s about how much I understood.

More than once, I held my phone under the table and typed in one of the plethora of foreign words and abbreviations they were using, trying to find it on Google. Is there a Rosetta Stone for health care language, I wondered? This was my first experience as a new community Board Member for Health Sciences North last fall. I’ve felt this way before as both a reporter and a patient — but as a board member was all new to me.

I sat there in this onboarding education session – overwhelmed — trying to keep up as one hospital leader after another got up and briefed us on issues, challenges and opportunities. I consider myself a fairly fast study – however, the pure volume of content to go through was like a tidal wave of numbers, charts and acronyms. What the heck did I get myself into, I thought to myself as a flipped through the briefing reports, trying to keep up.

In the real world, I work in public relations and media coaching – not health care. I worked as a CBC journalist for almost 20 years and covered my fair share of health stories – but that was a far cry from the level of detail I was dealing with now. Other than half-watching a few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and having my gall bladder removed, I really didn’t know much about the inner workings of health care.

I’ve been fortunate. I wasn’t new to volunteering on community boards – having sat on a number in the past and several currently.

There’s always a learning curve depending on the sector – but nothing like this.

I have a newfound respect for the professionals in the health care sector and those who volunteer in governance.

Now, in fairness, Board members are not expected to be health care experts out of the gate. A good Board has a cross-section of members to help approach the governance of that organization from any and all angles. And, I believe everyone has something to offer to a hospital board in terms of bringing a fresh lens and different approach to the issues in front of us. As a community member, I believe my role is to bring a community perspective to the hospital board. We have people with backgrounds in government, finance, education, research, human resources, etc.

As a former journalist and now a public relations specialist (as well as a father of four and the son of two seniors in their 70’s), I view the world through a different lens as it relates to how we are communicating both externally and internally – in an industry where communicating clearly is paramount.

I’ve made a career out of asking questions. Often those questions are simple ones – open-ended and rooted in genuine curiosity. I believe there is no such thing as a dumb question. Not asking questions, in my opinion, is what truly hurts a Board.

Communication is not a new challenge to the health care sector — whether it be Board governance or hands-on working with patients.

I remember as a journalist trying to interview doctors who spoke a completely different language — which was unfortunate given the importance of their work. Quite often, with reporters who aren’t medical specialists, very important

And, more than once as a patient, I remember doctors trying to communicate a plan and having it railroaded by inflammatory language that drowns out anything else they are saying. For example, I was with my wife once at the doctor’s office and she had a pain in her side (which ended up being nothing major).

But, when the doctor said, “We’re going to send you for a few tests and see if we can rule our cancer….” — well, I knew my wife heard nothing more after that.

I actually put up hand and stopped the doctor mid-sentence and informed him that his language and the use of the word “cancer” had hijacked the entire conversation.

The doc didn’t mean what my wife heard — and he had to go back and talk her through what he meant and what he didn’t mean. But, I wondered — how many nights sleeps have people lost due to poor medical communications skills?

Conversely, our new family doctor has a background of about 20 years a nurse — and her communication skills are excellent as she undoubtedly has a completely different skill set compared with someone who has only ever worked as a doctor. There aren’t many miscommunications these days — but I would contend she is a rarity in medicine.

So, I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I became a hospital Board Member and was immediately thrown into a world dictated through a unique language and acronyms that make no sense to 99.9% of society. My goal, however, is to help change it.

Back to that on-boarding education session I was in last summer. There I was, trying to keep up and somewhat lost in the technical world of health care and finance. So, I just kept asking clarification questions. Simple questions.

And, the more I asked – the more I found the hospital staff would later catch themselves speaking in technical jargon and then explain it for my sake without having to ask. In the course of one day, it improved dramatically. And, at the end of that session, another Board member came up to me and thanked me for asking those questions because he didn’t know what it meant either.

Since then, there has been Board meetings, committee meetings and a lot of learning. And, it’s getting much better. Our Board has been very supportive in helping that learning process whether it was providing an experienced Board member as a personal mentor (which I highly recommend) or attending the education workshops put on by the Ontario Hospital Association’s Governance Centre of Excellence (I’ve attended two fantastic sessions so far) or whatever professional governance body you have in your jurisdiction.

Again, like anything, there is always a learning curve but that shouldn’t serve as a deterrent to getting involved. Hospital boards face tough challenges moving forward and it needs committed, smart people from different walks of life to help navigate those waters.

Just get past those first few months – and don’t be shy – ask questions if you don’t know something.

Meantime, perhaps health care professionals and doctors can start doing their part by taking the effort to try and communicate with patients in a language they speak — and truly appreciate the psychological impact their words can have if they are misguided or technical in nature. Health care is ‘human’ at its core. So try to speak human.

Maybe medical schools can incorporate communications training in their curriculum and start breeding a new breed of physicians — ones that know how to communicate clearly.

Perhaps it’s because I work professionally in this area – but I believe communication is the language of leadership.

No more is that statement more relevant, in my opinion, than in health care.


CONWAY FRASER recently joined the Health Sciences North Board of Directors. He is a strategic communications advisor and a Gemini Award-winning former CBC journalist with over 25 years of experience as a professional communicator. He helps companies, organizations and executives in areas such as media coaching, crisis communications and external stakeholder relations.