Writer, Editor, Content Strategist


Reminder on Why to Avoid Jargon

Most professions have jargon, and while such technical language is useful and even necessary, it is overused. I propose that people should try, as much as possible, to use plain language, even when speaking to others in their discipline. It is important, especially in a world of specialization, to be able to communicate to a broad group of people about what you do and why it matters. 

I was reminded of this recently by a faculty member at work, who sent me an article by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called "A New Way to Talk about the Social Determinants of Health." Social determinants of health, or "SDOH" as they are often referred to on Twitter, is used by people in healthcare and public health to refer to how aspects of our lives like our education, income, or neighborhood, contribute to our health. It is usually thought of in contrast to the medical determinants--pharmaceuticals, surgeries, etc.-- of health or the biological determinants of health, like our genes. However, as Robert Wood Johnson's team director says in her introduction letter to the report, it is a term that does not "work on the ground." As she puts it, "For some [of our grantees] it was so patently obvious that it became a truism." 

I've always found social determinants of health clunky and unappealing, but I find myself using it not infrequently. Yet the problem is, as Robert Wood Johnson's report points out, it is not a frame that effectively persuades people that improving our schools or infrastructure can lead to improvements in health, as well as the more obvious benefits, like academic success and an easier time getting to work. A problem is that "SDOH" comes out of the perspective of someone with a strongly medical background. To someone whose training has mostly been focused on finding medical solutions to health problems, the idea of focusing on other factors is actually kind of novel. But for the rest of us, it actually may seem obvious, as Robert Wood Johnson's report suggests. What's more, the phrase has kind of an ominous mood because of the word "determinants." It makes it sound as if we are controlled by "social" factors, even though the whole idea of bringing attention to "SDOH" is to encourage people and policymakers to change aspects of our society not be determined by them. 

In any case, the Robert Wood Johnson report provides many more great, well-researched reasons why "social determinants of health" does not work in health messages and offers interesting ideas for what can work. For me, the lesson is when in doubt, do not use jargon. As a writer and communicator especially, I need to be vigilant to this and always search for what is clearer, more descriptive, and less jargon-laden.

WritingElaine Meyer