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December 5, 2022

Charted: The medical jargon your patients don't understand

Daily Briefing

    Common medical phrases such as "your tumor is progressing" or "the findings on the x-ray were quite impressive" are commonly misunderstood by patients, according to a recent study published in JAMA Network Open, leading some experts to suggest medical jargon be used less in conversations with patients.

    The medical jargon patients don't understand

    For the study, researchers surveyed 215 adults who did not work or train in the medical field and could speak and read English at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. Participants were given either a verbal or written survey.

    The survey asked about common medical terms and phrases, including the definition of "febrile" and the phrase "You will need to be NPO at 8 a.m." and asked how confident respondents were in their understanding of the phrases.

    The vast majority of respondents understood that having an "unremarkable chest radiography" was a good thing, but just 21% understood that when a clinician says their "radiography was impressive," that's typically bad news.

    Meanwhile, just 41% of respondents understood a "grossly intact" neuro exam is good news, 29% understood that "bugs in the urine" indicated a urinary tract infection, and just 9% understood the term febrile.

    The researchers found that neither education level nor age made a meaningful difference in better understanding medical jargon. Older respondents had a better understanding of just two phrases: "nothing by mouth" and "negative blood cultures."

    "Given that increasing age comes with more opportunities to have heard these terms used in a medical context, it is somewhat surprising that older age was only associated with better understanding of two of the 13 phrases," the researchers wrote.

    There was also no meaningful difference between those receiving a verbal survey and those receiving a written one, the researchers found.


    Michael Pitt, one of the authors of the study from the University of Minnesota, said that doctors "have found that while we often use words or phrases our patients may not understand, this is often because we simply have heard them so often that we simply forget there was a time we too didn't know what they meant."

    Pitt referred to this phenomenon as "jargon oblivion" and said the "only cure is for us to learn from our patients when we are using terminology or phrases that are rarely understood."

    Leslie Jurecko, chief safety, quality, and patient experience officer for the Cleveland Clinic, said jargon phrases are so embedded in health care that "I think it will be very challenging to eliminate all of this jargon from medical care."

    Jurecko said the Clinic uses a technique called the repeat-back method to "encourage [providers] to have their patients repeat back for understanding, and that opens up the dialogue." Clarifying and validating what a provider says to a patient creates a safe place for the patient to ask further questions, she added.

    "We also see in practice—and I think this is national and globally—that medical providers will use acronyms, and that has always been problematic, both in verbal and written language," Jurecko said. "We are always trying to get rid of that in the medical record." (Hamza, MedPage Today, 12/1)

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