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Small ways to stop the big problem of medical jargon

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Mar 6, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Have you ever felt febrile? Do you know what it means if a radiography result is unimpressive? If you understand the meanings of these words, chances are you have a lot easier of a time comprehending medical information than the average person.

We’ve discussed the medical jargon problem on this blog before -- not to mention the fact that many fields have their own jargon that can get out of hand, with professionals using these terms to communicate even with laypersons who aren’t likely to understand.

In most cases, this isn’t done intentionally. It’s simply that the people in these fields have forgotten that not everyone knows what they’re talking about when they use specialized language. The University of Minnesota’s Dr. Michael Pitt has coined a term for this phenomenon: jargon oblivion.

Like many healthcare professionals, Pitt is concerned about the confusion that jargon can cause for patients and laypersons, especially because in his field, misunderstandings can lead to serious or even deadly consequences.

But just how hard is it for the average person to understand frequently used medical jargon? To test this, Pitt and some colleagues headed to the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. There, they asked 215 adults if they knew the meanings of about a dozen words of medical jargon.

The results, published on JAMA’s Network Open on November 30, 2022, were what Pitt and his team - and probably you, dear reader - expected: Most of the people surveyed, regardless of variables like education level and gender, had trouble understanding the terms on the list.

Unfortunately, this issue isn’t a new one. For years, experts and advocates have been calling for ways to clarify, or downright curb, the use of medical jargon when communicating with patients and the general public. Some places, like the US and New Zealand, have even enacted laws to limit or stop the use of jargon…but alas, this only applies to government agencies, not hospitals, clinics, and private practices. Medical jargon remains an ongoing problem.

One of the reasons may be that it’s not easy for medical professionals, or people in any field with its own terminology, to simply stop using specialized language. But people like Pitt want to shake things up and incite change. His study will hopefully be a wake-up call.

And Meghan Rosen, one journalist who reported on it, tried to apply Pitt’s method to her own readers, in the hopes of further raising awareness about the medical jargon problem. Rosen’s article ends with a quiz that asks readers to choose the meanings of five medical jargon terms.

Although Rosen’s choice is related to Pitt’s experiment, it turns out she’s not alone in using quizzes to make people see things in a different, more compelling way. A number of marketing professionals suggest using quizzes. Consulting company Outbrain even lists effective marketing and awareness campaigns that have used quizzes.

One of the most notable examples is the Red Cross, which regularly adds quizzes to their messaging, with this in mind: “Rather than listing off what you should do, Red Cross quizzes you on what you think you know, and then provides structured results which communicate the proper steps to take.”

Maybe one day, awareness techniques like quizzes will jog the medical field from its jargon oblivion. For now, though, in most places, changes will have to happen on a small scale.

The American Osteopathic Association offers some tips that can help healthcare providers avoid using medical jargon with patients. These include:

● Making a drawing to describe a symptom or procedure.

● Explaining a medical procedure or diagnosis to a friend or family member who’s not in the medical field. This will force the medical professional to use plain language - and to get used to doing this with patients.

● Asking patients to repeat information they’ve been given, to see if they’ve understood.

Medical jargon won’t disappear overnight. But here’s hoping that calling it out and calling for solutions on both a small and large scale may one day stop medical professionals from using it with patients.

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