Richard L. Clarke, DHA, FHFMA

"Warning: Due to the size of the acronym list, you may experience a long delay if you choose to view All Letters."

That cautionary note appears at the top of the acronym list on the CMS website. The other day, an HFMA staff member started to print the list, thinking it might be a handy reference. When she realized the list was 143 pages long, she cancelled the job.

The government has long been a bastion of acronyms. At HFMA, when attempting to clarify government policy for our members, we often find ourselves constructing masterpieces of the arcane (MOA) such as "QIOs should review LTCH admissions based on new MedPAC criteria."

But acronym mania (AM) is not limited to the government. Accounting and finance bring their own set of acronyms to the party. What is your EBIDA this year? How about your GDRO (or your NDRO, for that matter)? Is your ROA up to snuff? How about your ROE? And I must admit that associations generate their own set of acronyms, or so I was told by an FHFMA at ANI.

Unfortunately, spelling out technical terms or industry-specific terms usually does not make them easier to understand, especially in finance.

From musical theater to nuclear physics, every discipline has its own language. And when two chorus line members or two nuclear engineers or two healthcare financial managers are talking shop, that language is a helpful shorthand.

The problem arises when we speak to people outside our areas of expertise. In health care, communicating in technical terms or jargon can have painful results. An ED patient who is frightened, in pain, and worried about paying for medical care would find little comfort being told the hospital is a 501(c)(3) organization and offers charity care for individuals up to four times the FPL (federal poverty level), even if that is good news. Similarly, a board member cannot do his or her job if he or she cannot understand a description of the risks of an interest-rate swap that uses the LIBOR to identify the variable interest rate.

Here are some ideas adapted from the PATIENT FRIENDLY BILLING® project for ensuring that you communicate effectively about financial matters.

  • In one short sentence, state why the financial information is important. This sentence should contain no technical language.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the person you are communicating with. Try to understand and address that person's core concerns. For example, board members want to fulfill the organization's mission. Patients want to get better and to ensure their bills are paid.
  • Avoid technical language unless it is absolutely necessary. A commonplace term to you (for example, "balance sheet") might be unfamiliar to your audience. If a technical term is necessary, define it in one short sentence.
  • Provide information in layers, starting with the least detail and adding more detail as necessary.
  • Try to find out how people like to receive information-visually, in writing, or in person-and try to communicate in that manner.

As much as we love our jargon and acronyms, when we're not talking with one another we need to use plain English. I'm going to start ASAP.


Visit the Patient Friendly Billing project website for more tips on how to communicate financial information to patients in a clear, concise, correct, and patient-friendly fashion.

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 01, 2004

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