To Your Health!
Medical Jargon and Its Effect
on the Patient Experience
By Liya Moges
In everyday life, misunderstandings happen on a regular basis, and while mistakes are common, it always poses a risk depending on the context of the problem. These days, more and more of these misunderstandings have become quite common especially in important environments such as the healthcare setting. A new prevailing communicative issue of misunderstandings due to something called “medical jargon”, used amongst healthcare providers, has given birth to many confusing conversations as well as dangerous misconceptions within patients and is something that could very well be fixed with a few questions.
What is Medical Jargon?
Medical jargon is often referred to as the “second language” that is used by healthcare professionals to shorten and ease communication. It is communication based on medical terminology and is usually used when explaining symptoms, diagnoses, results, and more when providing care for patients.
The issue with medical jargon is that it can be quite confusing for patients as well as create a misunderstanding between the healthcare professional and patient. While it is never the physician’s intention to confuse patients when using medical terminology, sometimes it can become a second thought while a diagnosis or result is being explained.
How does the use of medical terminology and jargon affect patient care?
There was a study conducted at a fair in Minnesota where 215 fairgoers were surveyed on some medical jargon that is often used by healthcare professionals in order to identify if individuals understood what certain words or phrases meant in accordance with their results. It was observed that the phrase “You have a negative result on your cancer screening” was understood accurately by 96% of the surveyed individuals as being a good thing, however the phrase “Your chest X-ray is impressive” was misunderstood by approximately 79% of survey respondents as a good result, when really the term “impressive” in this case is being used in a negative connotation.
Terms such as “impressive” or “progressing” when used in a healthcare setting can cause quite the misunderstanding, and pairing these terms with medical terminology such as lymph node, NPO, or benign in a result or diagnosis can make matters worse. Often times when patients hear phrases or terminology used like the ones mentioned above, they tend to use background knowledge and fill in the blanks themselves. In the same study, the phrase “-had an occult infection” was used in the survey and many of the surveyors believed that this had to do with a curse (witchcraft being the background knowledge they rely on when hearing the word occult) instead of understanding the phrase to mean that they had a hidden infection. Another more common phrase “grossly intact” which was used in the survey revealed that many individuals believed the phrase meant something negative since the background knowledge of the word “gross” is used in an unpleasant manner, when really the phrase is actually used as a good thing in regards to an examination.
Having patients rely on their background knowledge to guess what certain medical terms or jargon means in certain situations can often lead to problems during discussions for treatment, and can leave the patient frustrated or confused with the care they are receiving.
What can healthcare providers do to reduce these misunderstandings?
As healthcare providers, it’s important that the patient thoroughly understands the things you are relaying to ensure that the patient is comfortable and understands the results, diagnosis, or treatment options that are being provided. Medical jargon is not something healthcare providers are aware they are using in their conversations, so it’s important that healthcare professionals ask their patients follow up questions to gauge their understanding.
Often times, patients may feel as though asking questions makes them seem “stupid” or “annoying” so they may not voice their confusion, so it’s important that as a healthcare provider you check in on their understanding by having them repeat or reiterate the instructions or results explained to them.
What can patients do to reduce chances of misunderstandings?
As a patient, while it may seem daunting to have to ask for further explanation or clarification on certain words or phrases, or even the entirety of the conversation, it’s imperative that you ask questions so that you can fully understand what it is the medical professional needs you to do in order to continue providing you with quality treatment and care.
It can be difficult to come up with questions that encompass your concerns so start out with a few simple questions such as “What does this word mean?” or “I don’t understand what that result means, can you explain it again?” and as the healthcare provider answers your concerns, take note of any follow up questions that pop up as a result.
Not sure how to ask or clarify a phrase you’re unsure of? Let’s Roleplay!
Here’s an example of a conversation a physician may have with a patient, and what the best response should be in the case of confusion.
Let’s say your physician comes into your room to discuss your results!
Physician: “Hello Mr. Doe, here are your results from your last lab. Your results are impressive, so you may need to take this medication bi-weekly”
Here the word impressive is used and based on this sentence can seem quite ambiguous. How should the patient proceed?
Well, one way to proceed if you are confused with a phrase or meaning is by reiterating what you’ve understood from the conversation and check to see if your understanding was correct!
Patient: “Impressive results? Does this mean the result is good? I don’t quite understand why I will need medication if my results seem good.”
By simply reiterating what you understood from the statement, you are allowing the physician to identify a possible misunderstanding in the discussion and will give them a chance to affirm if your understanding was correct or incorrect.
Physician: “I apologize, the word impressive in this case means the opposite. Your results have raised a few concerns in regards to your health so we would like to prescribe you this medication and monitor your health after one 1 month to see if your condition improves”
Now that it was clear to the physician that the patient misunderstood their phrasing, the physician can rephrase and clarify the treatment the patient would be receiving!
What are some other ways to clarify my confusion once out of reach from my medical provider?
It is recommended that a patient call their healthcare provider to ask them about anything that may seem confusing! However, in some cases, such as being unsure what an acronym like NPO means can easily be explained with a quick search on the internet!
Many articles and websites offer some definitions and explanations of common acronyms used in a healthcare setting, so it can help relieve any confusion or misunderstandings you may have from home. However, it is still highly recommended that you ask your healthcare provider first, so please be sure to take each internet search with a grain of salt before continuing with any treatment plans!
Liya Moges is a passionate and dedicated junior studying Biomedical Science, Business, and Law at Georgia State University. She works at Emory University Hospital supporting nurses and physicians on a Complex Medicine floor and uses this opportunity to shadow different physicians in different specialties. In her goal to educate the public about health issues and equal access to care, Liya joined Today’s Patient to address topics such as health and wellness, public health, and diversity inclusion in medicine.
February 2023 page 2