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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Infection Control Messaging

Many moons ago I attended a management seminar entitled something like, “Five Essential Qualities of the Modern Manager”. The second through fifth qualities might very well have been brilliant, though they have disappeared into the fog of the intervening years. What I have never forgotten was the first essential quality, which was … wait for it … “Be self-aware”!!

In truth, it wasn’t the words themselves that struck me as odd, but the apparent belief on the part of the noted psychologist / management guru that his audience would know what being “self-aware” meant, and how we would know if we were or were not. As I recall, he expended fewer than a dozen words in his explanation of that essential managerial quality. And we, the 200 or so aspiring managers in the room, sought no further explanation because were too intimidated by his reputation for undisguised exasperation at what he invariably saw as unworthy questions.

My intent here is not catharsis (I achieved that years ago by writing a review of this same guru’s widely lauded but almost unintelligible book on his new-age approach to management). I simply present this as an exaggerated example of what we all tend to do – underdescribe and overexpect. And unless we become fully aware of what we are expecting and how we are communicating that expectation, the frustration of partial success or temporary success will be our constant companion.

What’d he say?
Every industry has its shorthand and insider terminology. I mean let’s face it, we are living in an acronymic world. “Twitter-speak” is creeping into our normal communication, and all those letters and abbreviations inhibit people’s understanding of what we want them to do. For example, we all know that “ICP” stands for either Infection Control Practitioner or Infection Control Professional (even we can’t agree). However, if someone in our audience doesn’t understand that acronym and subsequently googles “ICP”, they’ll find out that it most likely stands for Insane Clown Posse … seriously. We assume that everyone to whom we are speaking knows that “UTI” stands for Urinary Tract Infection. However, it is also a very common acronym for Uniform Type Indicator, a widely referred-to component of Apple software. According to Wiki (abbreviation for “Wikipedia” of course) “BSI” means Backside Illumination!! And all this time I thought that BSI stood for Blood Stream Infection – who knew I was so wrong.

Before anything else, we need to stop using acronyms and abbreviations unless we have defined them and are certain that our audience understands them. Of course we first need to have some awareness of the acronyms that we use. Perhaps an “acronym buddy” system would be useful, preferably with someone from outside our specialty.

Say again
We need to repeat ourselves, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, in as many ways as possible. A lecture on how to clean a patient room can be repeated in posters, video refreshers, games, I-phone apps, and multitude other creative ways. Even better would be to recruit members of the intended audience to create the memory aids themselves, or even to give the education sessions themselves.

Of course before we open our mouths we need to define what we want to say, and what practical outcomes or actions we expect. If we can set short term and long term objectives, explain them properly, and repeat them frequently enough that everyone understands, it should be possible to succeed.

So ultimately, regardless of one’s “self-awareness”, communicating in infection prevention and control is the same as communicating in the airline industry, or the hospitality industry, or anywhere else. There’s no magic. It’s really about intentional and oft repeated sharing of a well-planned message and of course not assuming everyone knows what we are talking about or the acronyms we are using.



PS – TFR … Thanks for Reading!

Paul Webber is from Belleville, Ontario Canada. In the late 1990’s Paul met Lois Rae, the infection control professional at his local hospital, who introduced him to the world of infection control and challenged him to get involved. In the years since that introduction Paul co-founded (with Prof. Syed Sattar) an initiative called Teleclass Education that arranges lectures by some of the brightest minds in the world on infection prevention and control topics. In 2011, that initiative celebrated 10 years of providing first class education around the globe. Paul has also authored articles that have been published in North America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and is regularly invited to participate in infection control conferences around the globe.


  1. Interesting read...we always were taught "remember who your audience is" but not "be cognitive the audience is diverse". I really like your comment on audience participation. A mentor once told me a valuable anecdote..."Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me and I become part of the solution".

  2. Great blog, Paul! Agree, agree, agree.