There has been a quiet revolution in what is asked of medical researchers applying for government money. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which spends around £950m on research every year (about £20m of it here at the BRC) – has said that a good quality plain English summary is now an essential part of every standard application form.
The “Make it Clear” campaign launches this new requirement, and sets out the basics of a good plain English summary: what it is, what it needs to include and provides resources to help create it. This is great to see. For a very long time, medical research was the preserve of medical researchers. That is no longer the case, and it is only through being very clear about what they are doing that researchers can meaningfully engage with and involve patients.
I love writing, tinkering with words and phrases until they make the complex simple, and have long despaired at how hard some medical and clinical professionals seem to find doing this.
In fairness, specialist terminology in any arena can be a genuinely useful shorthand to those who are embedded in that world even if it looks to outsiders like an alien language designed to befuddle. I frequently have this conversation with my husband when listening to the medieval jargon that is second nature to him and his fellow life-long sailors, but I also know that if the chips are down and we are about to capsize, he can issue a perfectly comprehensible jargon-free command. It is this ability – to switch into plain English mode when it matters – that is so crucial when medical and clinical professionals are communicating with patients.
A decade ago, I wrote a book about the NHS. One reviewer was kind enough to say “She has a good ear for absurd jargon”. One of the more worrying uses of jargon that I cited there was “DNA”. Finding frequent mention of this in their notes had, understandably, caused disquiet among patients, who concluded they were the subject of genetic experiments. They were reassured to find that DNA was NHS-speak for “Did not attend.”
Using acronyms, jargon and obscure terminology are just some of the ways in which we all, at times, fail to make ourselves clear. In all honesty, do we sometimes do this to seem just that bit cleverer than the next person by making what we do seem just that bit more complicated?
The new NIHR rules should set the scene for far better understanding in the real world of what researchers are up to.
Here’s hoping that not long from now, researchers won’t find creating plain English summaries a major hurdle. Why? Because they will have involved patients in their work from day one, requiring clarity of thought and word of a sort we can all follow. So it won’t come as any great challenge to have to write it down.