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Shaping our language to reshape healthcare

Language is how we communicate, the words we use. It’s one of the most powerful tools we all possess: it can convey emotion, persuade, unite and even change lives. But when the words we choose have so much weight behind them, the language we use can also create barriers, confuse or isolate. So, in an industry where language and communication has arguably the biggest impact on peoples’ lives, we ask, how can we use language more effectively in healthcare?

To find our answer, we need to remember who is at the centre of everything we do. Behind every diagnosis, treatment and drug discovery is the reason our sector exists: the health seeker, an individual living through experiences every day. Those experiences will shape the health seeker that sits across from you and how they process the information they receive, including every interaction they have with a healthcare professional. Which is why it’s so important to be conscious of the language used, and how it’s delivered.

The benefits of shaping the way you deliver information to a particular health seeker lie in affecting a health seeker’s decision-making process. Sadly, there’s no single formula for presenting information that will have the desired effect in every individual case. Rather, it’s tailoring the messages we communicate to each audience or situation that we can increase the likelihood of inducing a positive change in behaviour. So how can we approach that?

Learnings to take from the Framing Effect

There’s a world of information out there relating to socio-linguistics and language theory, too much to cover in this blog. Yet, it’s those theories and ideas that can help us tailor the way we use language and understand how much it affects others, even if we aren’t aware of it.

To example the different ways we can think about language, let’s look at the Framing Effect theory. This idea is founded on the way we process language, particularly relating to cognitive bias and how likely we are to make decisions based on the way information is framed.

The following example was presented in a BMJ opinion article:

A doctor in charge of caring for 600 people who are all affected by the same fatal disease must choose between one of two therapies, and the treatment chosen will be used on all the health seekers. Therapy A has a 100% chance of saving 200 of the health seekers. Therapy B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 health seekers, but a 66% chance of saving none of them.

Presented with this message, where the potential gains of each therapy are outlined, most people would choose Therapy A, which appears to carry a higher level of certainty that there will be some gains to undertaking the therapy.

Alternatively, the same scenario could be presented in a loss-framed way:

Therapy A has a 100% chance of killing 400 people, while Therapy B carries a 33% chance that none of the health seekers will die and a 66% chance that all of them will die.

When the options are presented like this, most people will choose Therapy B, which appears to provide the best chance of avoiding loss.

The importance of context

This indicates that behaviour and in particular, decision-making is most likely influenced by messages that emphasise potential losses. Humans are primed to prioritise loss aversion over the pursuit of gain, so our responses are highly dependent on the level of risk associated with the behaviour in question.

There is a broad range of practitioner-specific language models that highlight the effects of framing language in ways conducive to positive health seeker experiences.

Shaping our language for positive change

Primarily, we want health seekers to make the best decision that ultimately improves their health and wellbeing. In order for them to do that, we need to present them with clear, nuanced and thoughtful options, decisions, and information. While on a biological level the cognitive processes of receiving that information will be the same. It’s the intricacies of that individual, shaped by their own life, that will cause them to reach a decision via an entirely personal thought process. Understanding this notion and subsequently shaping the delivery of information around it, will allow for a positive, wide-scale impact to health seekers.

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