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The Big Story: Fierce Healthcare Buzzwords Tournament 2024

“Generative AI will face stiff competition from the other finalist, the champ of the corporate speak segment, ‘breaking down silos.’”

How Our Words Work Against Us

By David Jarrard

3-minute read

Do you play buzzword bingo as you read your morning emails?

You may not be circling words on an actual grid, but we bet you keep mental score of how often someone chooses the deflective jargon of corporate-speak instead of communicating clearly.

Emails. News coverage. Websites. Speeches. We award bingo winners with eyerolls, disengagement and a tinge of distrust. We slump in our chair and look at our phones while the PowerPoint presenter drones on. Your colleagues play, too, along with your patients, media, and lawmakers.

Wonder why the healthcare industry in general, and provider organizations specifically, face an erosion of trust?  Our industry – like other sectors – is so packed with buzzwords that we have winking contests to rank them. We know these emperor words have no clothes.

The words we so often use to explain ourselves work against us. In this moment when providers have an urgent need to tell a persuasive story with crystalline clarity our word-clouds are hazy. At best.

Buzzwords are just down the street from bullsh*t, which, as the late moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt said, “is talking without respect to the truth.” And more insidious than lying.

In case you’ve missed it, in tandem with the ongoing NCAA basketball championships, Fierce Healthcare is wrapping its 2024 reader-driven tournament to crown the most-overused-buzzwords in healthcare today.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the Final Four pairings had generative AI facing off against value-based care. In the other bracket, breaking down silos duked it out against patient engagement. The first in each of those pairings won, and voting is live to determine the 2024 champion.

Other high-ranking contenders for this year? Whole-person-care, streamlined, transformation and cost-effective.

Does this sound familiar to your keyboard? “A key to advancing our transformation into a value-based enterprise is our system’s ability to leverage the power of AI to break down silos and streamline operations so that we can focus on patient engagement and cost-effective, whole-person-care.”

It’s a faddish and unappetizing word salad with no protein.

A half-hearted defense of buzzwords

We all hate buzzwords. But we use them, too. Why?

“Much like other forms of slang, business buzzwords are important because they can simplify complex concepts into a word or phrase that is easy to understand,” according to, as it prepares newcomers to enter the world of work.

Indeed, buzzwords can be linguistic shortcuts that accelerate effective communication. Who has time to define care navigation or transparency every time you use the phrase? These words are agreed-upon metaphors that trap a shared understanding in the amber of a few syllables.

Jargon and acronyms – close kin to buzzwords – can be genuinely helpful in efficiently communicating among a group of insiders who know the specific meaning of the terms. It’s hard to imagine a business without an ingroup using code words. It’s easy.

Being comfortable with the unique language of your professional culture is so important that recommends newcomers “practice buzzwords” before showing up to the job so they can quickly “engage with coworkers and customers according to the norms” of their new organization. New work clothes and new work words.

Then again, “Buzzwords are how workers pretend to be adults,” per The Atlantic. Look in the mirror, say “synergy” repeatedly until you can speak it without a smirk, and be proud that you spent all that money on college.

Buzzwords kill conversations

A buzzword quickly becomes a bad word when used – sometimes purposely, often thoughtlessly – beyond the small inner circle who have agreed upon its meaning.

And that’s most of the time.

In these cases, buzzwords are not used to clarify or leapfrog a conversation along. Instead, they obscure meaning or hide the utter lack of it.

They push outsiders away, instead of inviting them in. They shut the door on new ideas. They kill conversations. They deflect thoughtful dialogue or probing questions. They plant distrust. They are a fumbling Jedi mind trick that says, “Don’t look too closely here.”

“A buzzword is a profound-seeming phrase devised by someone important to make something sound better than it is,” says The Atlantic. “It’s what you use when you aren’t really doing anything…they can provide a PR-friendly gloss on whatever pain points you’re trying to cover up.”

You know buzzwords when you hear them. So do your colleagues. And your patients.

To be clear: It’s not that AI or value-based care (pick your favorite term) are meaningless concepts. Of course not. It’s that, left unadorned with your specifics, these terms are so broad as to be meaningless. The problem with empty words is that unless you fill them with meaning, someone else will. Without that work, you leave your readers numb or confused, at best. Mistrustful, at worst.

Buzzwords hurt healthcare

As a leader, you know the power of words well-chosen or ill-used.

Our buzzword-stuffed healthcare glossary hinders our industry’s ability to sharply and persuasively tell its story. This deserves our attention as the need for providers to clearly communicate what they do and their benefit to their communities is urgent.

“What is this strange and confusing healthcare language we have invented?” mused healthcare policy guru Paul Keckley, recommending the creation of a new healthcare glossary “so we aren’t lending to the public’s confusion about what we mean.”

“The lexicon we use in our industry lends to confusion: Powerful words and phrases that convey something different depending on the user’s intent,” he recently wrote. “Just as fake news and alternative facts are now part of our political discourse, so is our dependence on terms and phrases that mislead or confuse.”

The easy words of healthcare lingo can do a disservice. Clarity and consistency in our communications – down to our word choices — is paramount as our industry faces a rising chorus of critical voices.

What if our industry’s leading communicators created a new glossary so that we could consistently define the words most important to us. We’d suggest starting with defining community benefit – which didn’t even make it to the court for Fierce’s tourney.

But, short of creating a new healthcare dictionary? Play buzzword bingo against your next communication before it goes out the door.

If you lose, you win.

Contributors: Emme Nelson Baxter

Image Credit: Shannon Threadgill