THE BLOG

Language Matters! Maternity Experience and NHS Change Day

09/03/2015 17:05 | Updated 09 May 2015

#MatExp is a campaign led by healthcare professionals and users alike. Part of NHS Change Day, it is aimed at identifying and sharing best practice across the country's maternity services. If you check out the hashtag on Twitter, you will see it has already been generating lively discussion about what needs to improve. I am proud to be the campaign's language champion.

Being in any healthcare environment for any reason can feel disempowering for a patient. Effective communication between healthcare professionals and patients can help build trusting relationships, improve patient outcomes and patients' experiences.

Communication is at the centre of everything, and no more so than in a healthcare environment:

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My passion for appropriate language and effective communication stems from my years of experience as a communications professional in the NHS. This passion was enhanced as a result of my personal experiences as a patient and as a parent in 2014.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with my story, in February 2014 I was diagnosed with the rare, life-threatening pregnancy conditions HELLP syndrome and pre-eclampsia when I was just 24 weeks along. The only cure is for the baby to be born, and my son Hugo was born 16 weeks early. My beautiful son was too small, and premature and sadly died at the age of 35 days.

While nothing differently could have been done from a clinical perspective, there were several incidences where our experience could have been less stressful, and additional upset avoided if there had been better communication.

This is why I set up an organisation, Bright in Mind and Spirit (it is what Hugo's name means) to help make improvements for the benefit of other families.

Raising awareness of HELLP syndrome was the inspiration for my pledge for last year's NHS Change Day.

This year, my action focuses on raising awareness of the importance and impact of healthcare communication.

Feedback from many other women reveals I am not alone in wishing for better communication in my experience of maternity services. These women had every kind of pregnancy and birth experience you can think of. The one thing we share in common is the impact poor communication and choice of vocabulary by healthcare professionals had on our maternity experience.

Language can have an enduring impact, with things that were said to women when they were giving birth to their babies staying with them many years later.

Medical jargon can be confusing and bewildering. In addition, some terms may impact a woman's self-esteem.

Terms like 'failure to progress' and 'incompetent cervix' might be perfectly proper medical terms, not intended to be personal. But think about it for a moment: these terms describe a woman's physiology. Women therefore cannot help but take personally such terms. In the context of pregnancy, where expectant mothers want to do everything possible to protect their babies, such words can inadvertently convey a sense of blame, leading the woman to feel she is a failure or incompetent, rather than elements of her physiology that are beyond her control being responsible.

Some simple phrases to help a woman feel more in control of her body, an equal partner in her care, and involved in decisions include asking "What do you think?", or "Is there anything you don't understand?". Sounds much better, doesn't it?

Healthcare professionals of all disciplines need to reflect that each patient is an individual, with their own experiences, values, hopes and fears.

There is so much discussion around language in maternity services. For instance, women have raised points about choice (some women have little choice about how or where they give birth, for a variety of reasons); risk (which sounds scary - often it means only 'possibility'); and 'normal' birth (the notion that there is a 'right' way or place to give birth). The vocabulary we use to describe birth is crucial for helping women feel equal and empowered.

It could also help remove the polarisation of opinion between 'normal' birth always being best, and interventions always being harmful.

Improving language and communication will take time. In many cases there are no easy answers. However, recent social media discussions (with midwives, obstetricians, professionals from other specialties, as well as other users) about language have been heartening because the connection between communication, outcomes, and patient experience is being acknowledged.

The main point to remember about communication in healthcare is to consider how you would like to be treated yourself. You're likely to want to be treated with compassion, empathy and respect, aren't you?

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the author's blog, Headspace Perspective.