Why language, intersectionality and creative bravery matter

Phillipa Williams

Phillipa Williams on Jun 19, 2024

I recently attended Cancer Research UK’s Early Diagnosis Conference in Birmingham. I boarded my train back to London with mixed emotions.

Energised by the possibilities that emerging data, new insight and exciting tech brings but overwhelmed by the deepening inequalities across our four nations; the juxtaposition of brilliant research with a system that is falling apart at the seams; and the increasing levels of poverty, ill-health and the unfairness that feel hard baked into our systems.

On my train home, those emotions settled, and I started to sift through my thoughts.

What I kept coming back to was…

Language and understanding matters

I know, I know, no sh*t Sherlock. But how we talk about new developments in screening and testing matters. Developing a shared language between system, patient and practitioner is crucial. In our work for Bowel Cancer UK on their ‘Tell Your GP Instead’ campaign – the people we spoke to love the idea of a ‘FIT’ test for bowel cancer. It gave them a sense of efficacy and it took away some of the fear and embarrassment of having to see their GP and showing their bum or talking about poo. But the word ‘FIT’ was utterly confusing – ‘why do you need to know my fitness levels’ – a test to do at home or even a ‘poo test’ resonated much more.

The use of innovation and tech in health is increasingly becoming normalised

Listening to Jo Waller’s work on public receptiveness to innovation in healthcare, I was struck by just how far we have come in the last 10 years.

When Zoe Camper was doing her groundbreaking work at Versus Arthritis with IBM Watson, working to create our first AI powered health advice tool, our consumer insight showed that people struggled to believe that personalised health information could be delivered by a tech product.

The warning remains the same – poorly designed products rarely meet people’s needs. When they fail to answer our questions, we walk away. Building a language model based on a deep understanding of the logical questions that people ask, as well as their fears and apprehension, is essential for effective intervention design.

Intersectionality is key

Surely, we must now move away from a homogenous view of ethnicity dictating behaviour – the notion that all people of ‘South Asian’ or ‘Black African’ heritage behave in a uniform way feels anarchic, and yet we continue to see it in briefs and in the literature.

From the talks of Katrina Whitaker and Annette Aliu – I took away the need for us to do better, to ensure that we are considering the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, education and social grade, as well as, importantly, attitudes and behaviours, when assessing drivers, barriers and designing interventions.

Translation, translation, translation…

I was taken back to my Versus Arthritis days – the perennial challenge of translation of research into practice and moving to scale.

It resonated with something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – I see great research and strategies but not enough truly effective interventions. There are, of course, different systemic challenges in comms design vs system level change but at the root, I think there are the same universal truths. To take an idea and put it out into the world requires bravery, faith and more people to say yes than no.

So, as I got off the train in Euston that was my renewed commitment… here’s to being brave, to doing things differently and to saying ‘yes’ more.