Cutting through the medical jargon

Our perspective

Sometimes, interpreting a doctor’s medical jargon can feel like trying to understand a foreign language. A number of years ago, my wife asked me to accompany her on a visit to her doctor. As my colleague rattled off a detailed explanation of “pH, calcium metabolism, oxalate ratios and the effect of citrate,” I realized that I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

Unfortunately, like most patients and families, I didn’t want to show my ignorance, so I sat quietly and nodded my head in affirmation.  As we walked to our car, I was unable to explain the results to my wife – I didn’t have a clue.  I was the “poster boy” for the fact that this situation is not restricted to the poorly educated.

Jargon is pervasive in all professions, but it has its greatest impact when doctors try to communicate with patients. People’s lives are at stake.  Health care professionals have their own verbal shorthand that may be highly effective when they speak to each other but causes confusion when used with laymen.

The use of jargon begins in medical school. A medical student can quickly rattle off that, “Mrs. Jones had a syncopal episode last night without any evidence of arrhythmia.  I don’t think it was vagal but I ordered a 2D echo and holter. I still can’t rule out a vertebrobasilar event.”  Everyone wearing a white coat understands this secret language, but the patient lying in the bed may feel terrified and confused.

Medical jargon is everywhere

The average American reads and speaks at an eighth- or ninth-grade level, yet doctors assume that their patients will understand their obscure communication.  Healthcare professionals must become “medically bilingual,” that is, learning to speak both medical jargon and plain language.

Multiple studies have looked at the use of jargon by doctors and the failure of patients to understand them.  One study of 249 emergency room patients reported that 79% did not know that the word hemorrhage was the same as bleeding and 78% did not know that a fracture was a broken bone.  In case you think these were illiterate, underprivileged people, 45% of the people in the study were college educated. We cannot assume that the lawyer or English professor has any more understanding than someone with less education.  

The patient’s role

There are some steps that patients and their families can take so they don’t fall into the same trap that I did.  One simple program is the “Ask Me 3” program that provides you with three questions to ask your doctor.

  • What is my main problem?
  • What do I need to do?
  • Why is it important for me to do this?

Unfortunately, you may still get jargon-packed answers. So, here are a few more tips to make sure you walk away with a clear understanding of your problems.

  • If you do not understand what your doctor is saying, immediately stop them and ask them to use simpler language. Don’t pretend that you understand when you do not.
  • Tell the doctor what you think they said to be certain that you understood them. This is called a “teach back.”
  • If you feel you need more time, ask to schedule another visit in the near future. This may be a Telehealth visit and you will have the opportunity to have others listen in and help you.   
  • If the doctor is busy, ask if there is a nurse or assistant who can answer your questions.
  • Take a friend with for another set of ears and always take notes.
  • Ask who you can call if you still have questions when you get home?

A final example

While reviewing articles on the use of medical jargon, I came across an article on “Interprofessional Jargon: how is it exclusionary? Cultural determinants of language use in health practice.” The abstract included this sentence. “A hermeneutic research approach was used with a convenience sample of international key informants representing six disciplines.”

 I have no idea what it means, do you?