Professional shorthand is great – except when your audience doesn’t know what it means

When training to become a physician, students learn a lot of technical language. They learn to distinguish the coronoid fossa from the radial fossa, and the difference between medial epicondylitis and lateral epicondylitis. But most doctors learn pretty quickly when they start to interact with patients that they’re dealing with a sore elbow.

Medical jargon often gets in the way of the real professional task: helping the patient understand what’s going on, what can be done about it and how to prevent it from happening again.

There’s a lesson there for people who approach healthcare from a business, technology or policy orientation (especially all three). We have information that people need. We understand the situation so deeply that we have shorthand ways of referring to it. But we forget at our peril that in making ourselves understood by people who lack expertise, the jargon gets in the way.

Case in point: the word “value.” If there is one concept that unites people across the healthcare industry, it is that pricing should be tied to value – the value that a cure brings to individuals, that better disease management brings to the healthcare system, the value that patients ascribe to a better understanding of their medical risks and health.The concept is brilliant; the word is not. Outsiders to the conversation don’t know what it means. It’s a buzzword and it needs to be replaced.

Working with clients from across the healthcare sector, I’ve had the opportunity to see this language tested in focus groups and polls, and put to use with journalists, investors, and public officials.

For the most part, they don’t get it. Some people think “value” is code for “cheap,” and worry that it will mean poorer quality. Other people think it’s a euphemism for “more expensive,” a way to take advantage of them. Still others are so uncertain and befuddled, they don’t know what to make of it.

Something else that happens in those conversations: When you ask about ways to improve healthcare, people will often articulate exactly what we mean when we talk about value. They will say, “I’d like to see a system where we pay based on what works,” or, “If something is going to prevent more expensive treatments down the line, we should be willing to pay a good price for that.” Or they’ll say, “Those extra six months with my mother were worth so much more than just treating her symptoms.”

In other words, the public thinks the same things that the experts do, but because the experts talk about it in ways that defy understanding, the industry’s reputation continues to suffer.

Is there a better buzzword? There might be, but a better approach is to take the few extra seconds to actually say what we mean. Instead of saying that they want to “move to a value-based approach to pricing,” a pharma company’s executives could simply say that its prices include considerations such as the impact a product has on a patient’s overall health costs. Health plan leaders could replace “value” with simply spelling out that they will reimburse based on the success of treatment.
It’s not that hard to do.

 

David Seldin is a Partner specializing in public affairs, crisis communications, and corporate reputation, with an emphasis on healthcare. He is based in Washington, DC.

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