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Breaking barriers: Side-by-Side help shape the language we use

Language holds immense power in shaping our understanding, beliefs, and behaviours. In the context of healthcare, the language and terminology we use can either build bridges or create barriers.

My name is Talia and I’m the Creative Comms Manager for the Academy. My role is really diverse, but everything I do is underpinned with the drive to make the information and content we share accessible and user-friendly.

person wearing lots of hats

However, as good as we may be at putting on our “patient and service user” hats, we are not you; we are not the ones with the experience of accessing and using the information we share. So, how understandable is the language we use, really? What does the terminology we use mean to you? Are our communications as accessible as they could be? With these questions rolling around in my head, and alongside my People Participation colleagues Carl and Natalie, we decided to chat to the members of our Side-by-Side network and ask for their help…and boy did they help.

For those who are unfamiliar with Side-by-Side, it’s a group of patients, service users and members of our community who volunteer their time to support us in lots of ways, including being part of improvement projects, co-developing training and shaping our strategy. Crucially, they provide us with a patient/service user point of view, and the voice of our communities. The network meets regularly so I gatecrashed one of their virtual catch-ups to ask them what their understanding was, and how they would describe two of the terms we use most in the Academy: Quality Improvement and Research.

The discussion around these two words was enlightening. Within my role, the terms Quality Improvement and Research form part of my everyday language, and so it it was fascinating to hear Side-by-Side discuss their understanding of these terms and what they meant to them. Here are a few key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Even individuals who are committed and long-standing members of Side-by-Side didn’t feel confident in explaining what Quality Improvement and Research meant.

  • There was a general agreement that Quality Improvement was a jargon-y term and a bit confusing, especially for those who hadn’t been part of any improvement projects.

  • Many felt that Research was a term that mainly applied to clinical studies, and that being involved would require being in a laboratory-type setting.

  • Some had taken part in a study that was conducted using an online survey, but they weren’t 100% confident in referring to this as taking part in Research.

  • There was also discussion around the fact that Research as a term could be off-putting because it seems to be highly academic and something that you need to know lots about in order to be part of or talk about it.

It really highlighted that we need to do more to help de-jargon the language we use, and that the most powerful way to describe what we do is through the experiences and voices of our patients and community members.

Unfortunately we can't just stop using the terms Quality Improvement and Research in our communications. However, going forward we will focus on sharing the stories of those who have been involved in these activities, the routes they took and the impact their participation has had, in their owns words. In doing this I hope we'll get better at demystifying what we do.

In total we only spent half an hour having a discussion with Side-by-Side, but those 30 minutes have already changed the way I think and work. I’d like to make the discussion we had with the network a regular thing; continuing the conversation around the language we use and asking the group to help us translate more of the terms we rely on.

By challenging jargon, embracing inclusive terminology, bridging language divides, and collaborating with us, our Side-by-Side volunteers are breaking down barriers and helping to ensure that everyone can understand and actively participate in their healthcare journey.


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