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When empty jargon has deadly consequences

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From The Times

Critical decision units, they called them. Or CDUs, to make them sound important. But they were just rooms with no proper facilities where staff at Mid Staffordshire NHS dumped unassessed patients to meet four-hour waiting-time targets.

In these critical decision units, critical decisions weren’t taken. One didn’t have any staff. In the other, the Healthcare Commission says, patients were left for three days or more. CDUs were a sham, a cheat.

What killed hundreds of people in Mid Staffordshire was semantics; the first big case of death by empty words. It won’t be the last. Incompetence was an accomplice – it always is – but the main culprit was the cloak of evasive language.

The entire health service floats on an Orwellian sea of newspeak strategies, policies, stakeholders, parameters, benchmarking, outcomes, actioning, pathfinding. Third-rate jargon, that great weapon of the inadequate, has become the accepted way to con the public – sorry, service users. And create jobs too – because someone spends a lot of time writing the bloody stuff.

It is all about aggrandisement. Mid Staffs boasts a “finance directorate”, “strategic governance” and a “comprehensive Integrated Business Plan, which contains an extensive analysis of the factors that could drive demand and a detailed PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) analysis”.

But this “pestle” was useless when it couldn’t predict the unwanted patients shuffled into side rooms.

If managers had spent less time on “a programme of agreed audit activity which facilitates a review of existing controls and recommends appropriate remedial action or systems redesign”, patients might not have had to drink out of flower vases.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2009 at 9:24 am