Six months ago I ran a workshop for a group of doctors, healthcare workers and former cancer patients. The object was to consider how to improve the quality of information that people receive at different stages along the cancer ‘journey’.
We looked at examples which ranged from the very informative to the virtually unintelligible, the simple to the terrifying. The one thing that many of them had in common was a tendency to speak in the clinical, rather peremptory, often condescending and largely masculine language of the consultant physician. What an equally large number lacked was any kind of empathy.
Yesterday, I received an email from one of the workshop participants, an oncologist, enclosing a copy of a leaflet that she and her team had subsequently written ‘in a very different style from the one it would have been without your input’.
It was clear, direct, warm, empathetic, authoritative, helpful, respectful. It treated the readers as human beings, it subtly acknowledged their predicament, and it spoke to them as equals. I simply couldn’t fault it and I don’t mind admitting that it made me feel immensely proud.
The NHS has mountainous lessons to learn about language, as anyone will know who has ever been summoned to a hospital appointment (‘you are required to attend …’), let alone been handed a ‘patient information’ leaflet on any subject.
And the starting point, the absolute foundation of any learning, is that language can, should, must be part of the healing process. As my oncologist friend so beautifully demonstrated, it just takes a little imagination, a bit of graft, and the will to connect. The opposite doesn’t really bear thinking about.