Healthcare stakeholders: Are we speaking your language?

Behavioural science tells us to think harder about the words we hear, the words used by others and ourselves.
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Global Practice Leader, Behavioural Science, Health Division

Behavioural science agrees that “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and that the words we choose to communicate really do matter. Our words have the power to change the perception of others — and how others react and view an offer, choice, or decision.

Words change perceptions

Multiple experiments and studies have highlighted that researchers must think about how they word their questions to avoid bias. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus explored how language influences perceptions by asking various questions framed in different ways. She discovered that people answer much differently based on how the questions are framed. While it’s likely impossible to maintain complete neutrality, as a researcher, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be as neutral as possible.

These experiments have implications on the ways in which physicians communicate information to patients, too. The word “cancer” carries incredible connotations for patients — and its inclusion in a diagnosis drowns out everything else. Interviews conducted by Kantar noted that patients diagnosed with early stage, easily curable cancer experienced nearly the same level of anxiety and emotional impact as patients with a more serious diagnosis. Saying “cancer” can cancel out the rest of the message that it’s mild or curable.

Words are windows

The words we choose can illustrate for others how we feel about and make sense of our world. One 2018 study explored the use of natural language on internet forums. Researchers discovered that individuals with depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns. This pattern may suggest that those suffering from depression are less connected to others and more focused inward.

Words define and illustrate

Language is linked to identity. The words we use help to define us, illustrating how we experience and interpret our world. If we return to the cancer example and examine the language associated with the disease and those living with it, we see the use of military or warlike metaphors. People are “sufferers” or “victims” who “battle” their cancer. Some patients find this language motivating and empowering whilst for others the impact is negative.

Elena Semino, professor of Linguistics and Verbal Art at Lancaster, learnt that some cancer patients preferred descriptors other than those infused with militaristic language, like “journey” metaphors. Semino’s team found that “journey” metaphors tend not to lead to feelings of guilt or failure as much as “battle” metaphors.

Ultimately, the link to identity is important to remember in the language we use to describe ourselves and others. When referring to cancer patients, it’s healthier and more holistic to recast those patients in a way where cancer isn’t the sole way by which they’re defined, like “people with cancer” or “people living with/ affected by cancer.”

Listen and learn

We must listen carefully to the language our respondents use and think about how our words impact them. Patients are people first and patients second — individuals who express their thoughts and experiences in diverse ways. Our task, as researchers, is to understand through all these channels and to provide respondents including patients, healthcare providers and other stakeholders with a range of different tools with which to convey their thoughts and feelings.

By examining the language our respondents spontaneously use, we’re better able to gain deep insight into who they are. To communicate in a way that truly resonates, we must learn to speak the right language.

Download the white paper here.