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Fact/Fiction: Have nurses been told to stop calling female patients ladies?

Old news, truthfully retold. The PC brigade have found their way into our hospitals – or have they?

How it was told

“It’s political correctness gone mad” is a familiar phrase these days. It has been used to describe straight bananas (falsely), wearing goggles to play conkers (also false) and a multitude of other stories.

Last week nurses were in the firing line. Reports claimed that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had ordered nurses to stop calling female patients “ladies” following the introduction of a style guide on January 28.

The story was broken by the Daily Mirror on February 1. They reported that as well as dropping “lady”, nurses are to avoid calling mature patients “OAPs, elderly or pensioners” in favour of “older people”. “The disabled” has also been jettisoned in favour of “people with disabilities” and “alcoholics” are to be termed “alcohol misusers”.

They opted for the headline: “Nurses ban the use of ‘OAPs, elderly and pensioner’ to avoid ‘causing offence’”.

The story was then picked up by Mail Online under the headline: “Nurses shouldn’t call women ‘ladies’ or old people ‘pensioners’ in case they cause offence, says official new guide”.

And then, finally, The Sun covered the story online, branding it “PC CLAPTRAP: Nurses ordered to stop calling females patients ‘ladies’ to be inclusive in new gender-neutral guidelines”. The ‘PC Claptrap’ kicker was a quote from Philip Davies MP, who slammed the plans.

The crucial difference between the Mail Online and The Sun’s stories is that The Sun makes it clear that they believe nurses will be pulled up for their spoken words to patients while Mail Online focuses on the written word.

Facts. Checked

The problem with these stories is that they come from a style guide on how nurses should communicate in print, email and other digital channels, not how they speak to patients. The guide recommends ways for nurses to conduct themselves in internal written communications.

There is also no mention of banning words – instead it is a guide to which terms are preferable in the RCN’s style. The irony is that style guides are essential at media outlets and The Sun, the Daily Mirror and Mail Online will all have style guides of their own.

The section of the RCN guide that is in question relates to ‘Characteristics’ and is introduced with the explanation: “It’s really important to use the correct terms to describe people to avoid causing unwitting offence.”

The section does advise nurses as reported – so “woman” is preferred to “lady”, “disabled people” is suggested instead of “the disabled” and “elderly people” and “older people” should be used, not “OAP”.

Nurses are also advised to use gender-neutral language like “chair” instead of “chairman”, “humankind” rather than “mankind” and “staffed” is preferable to “manned”.

But this is far from The Sun’s inference in its headline that “political correctness gone mad” will be seen on wards.

An RCN spokesperson explained to factchecking organisation and Big Issue Changemaker Full Fact: “This was not guidance for nurses on how to speak to, or about, their patients. Instead it was a guide for staff who work at the RCN on respectful use of language.

“Nurses are capable of making their own judgements about how they speak to the people they care for.”

Mail Online did better in this respect and was the only one of the three publications to contact the RCN so that they could clarify that this guide was not for spoken words. The other two publications did not do that.

Political correctness is often a tabloid target. And perhaps that was behind the inference that nurses were being banned from using specific words or that it would affect what was being heard on hospital wards. But it is misleading and inaccurate.

Illustration: Miles Cole

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