Public health is at risk of mainstreaming jargon, study shows

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 31 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1109
  1. Roger Dobson
  1. 1Abergavenny

    Too many public health specialists are thinking “outside the box” or “reinventing the wheel,” concludes an analysis of presentations at a recent UK conference.

    Public health, or “the front end business,” has been invaded by jargon and management speak, say the researchers, who analysed proceedings at the UK Faculty of Public Health’s annual scientific conference (Public Health doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2008.05.012).

    “These findings should form the basis of a comprehensive campaign to counteract this pandemic, and place the UK at the vanguard of management-speak control,” wrote the researchers, whose study involved volunteers using a checklist to record jargon during two days of the conference.

    “Engage” emerged as the most widely used jargon word, with 27 recordings, followed by “at risk,” with 26, and then “working in partnership,” with 15 mentions. “Joint strategic needs” had eight outings, while “joined up” had six. “Mainstreaming” had six occurrences and “incentivising” two.

    The volunteers were also asked to be on the lookout for jargon words not on the checklist, and several were spotted and reported. The authors, from University College London, say that this additional list suggests that the public health community may be developing a breed of new jargon, including “being effective in the people business,” “the personalisation agenda,” and a “network of networks.”

    Other additional words recorded include “intertalk,” “cross talk,” and “actively share.” The authors also say that “ringfencing” and “championing” in some form seem to be in routine use in public health departments.

    “One speaker actually admitted to performing ‘a drill down,’” the authors reported. “A delegate warned us, ‘If we take our eye off the ball, we lose sight of the patients.’ For the first, and hopefully last, time, the role of public health was even described as ‘front-end business.’”

    They say that action is needed to tackle the problem of management speak—or, as one speaker put it, to “manage the curve downwards.”

    But they add: “On no account, however, must a task force be set up.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1109

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