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Patient safety office's English name deemed unlawful in Finland

The "No-Harm Centre" will be required to create Finnish and Swedish equivalents.

Kuvakaappaus Vaasan keskussairaalan nettisivuilta.
English alone is not good enough for the names of Finnish authorities. Image: Mirva Ekman / Yle

Vaasa Central Hospital's brand-new centre for study and development of patient safety will be changing its official name after the Institute for the Languages of Finland (Kotus) criticised the original English name – the No-Harm Centre – as going against Finnish administrative policy and legal requirements.

The wording of the centre's name comes from a version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors, which contains a phrase that has become the common English-language idiom, "first do no harm."

The phrasing is very familiar to patient safety workers, according to Vaasa Hospital District chief Marina Kinnunen.

"But when common people see this term, they might not know the reference," said Kinnunen on Thursday, after a week of linguistic controversy. "Kotus didn't tell us to change the name entirely, just to add Finnish and Swedish equivalents as well."

What's in a name?

Kotus expert and name planner Ulla Onkamo said that an official Finnish agency or office cannot be only known by an English name, because English is not one of Finland's official languages.

The Language Act states that the government and bilingual municipalities must offer services and signage in both Finnish and Swedish. The Administrative Procedure Act says that official nomenclature must be clear and straightforward.

"A solely English name cannot be considered understandable in Finland. And even if one were to know enough English, this name does not tie into patient safety clearly enough. Experts perhaps may find it obvious, but not the public at large," Onkamo said.

Onkamo and Kotus find fault with other official naming practices as well, saying that authorities and public agencies must be distinguishable from commercial trademarks.

The Finnish Transport and Communications Agency's official name, Traficom, is not clear enough in denoting itself as an official authority, Onkamo said, while the name of national mail carrier Posti is clear but lacks a Swedish equivalent.

Kotus announced that it will begin compiling a guidebook for proper naming policies. The guidelines will likely be available to public administrators and others sometime in 2020.

Safety first

Offiicals at Vaasa's No-Harm Centre said it would soon be adding Finnish and Swedish names.

Kinnunen said she was surprised by the sensation the English name caused, but that the attention should not go to waste. She said she hopes the discussion will draw interest to the centre's primary goal, namely to develop patient safety.

"We've basically received a lot of free advertisement for the centre with this public discussion. I hope it will lead to better national resourcing for improving patient wellbeing and safety."

Meanwhile, Finland is struggling in many respects to keep its health care systems working properly, as pharmacies are understaffed, elder care companies are in crisis and hospital emergency wards are often congested.

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