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Have you ever been baffled by the language your doctor uses?


Patient's asked to speak up if they do not understand.

‘Benign’, ‘malignant’, ‘lesion’, ‘stool’, ‘dialysis’… these are all words used on a day-to-day basis within the medical profession, but do patients really understand what they mean?

Doctors at Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust have been surveying their patients to find out.

Frustrated by his own experiences as a patient, consultant anaesthetist and director of postgraduate medical education Dr Ian Mcneil enlisted the help of his medical students to wage war on medical jargon.

They carried out research into what terms patients understand and more importantly those they don’t.

Over three weeks, fourth year Hull York Medical School student Ben Thompson surveyed 50 inpatients at Grimsby hospital about their understanding of 20 frequently used medical terms.

His poster presentation summing up his findings won him first place at the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals HEAT event and his work is set to be published in the student British Medical Journal. 

The results showed that the level of understanding varied greatly from one individual to the next. A large number of patients had only a limited understanding of some of the most commonly used terms that doctors perhaps take for granted.

Dr Mcneil said: “I think the use of jargon is more common than we perhaps appreciate and many patients do not understand even what doctors might regard as basic phrases. One single technical word or phrase used in consultation with a patient may be enough to render an entire conversation meaningless or misunderstood.”

The most misunderstood terms were ‘palpate’ (to examine a part of the body by touch), ‘oedema’ (a build-up of fluid that causes swelling) and ‘echocardiogram’ (a heart scan) whereas ‘catheter’ and ‘stool’ were terms that were widely understood. Only 40 per cent of patients had a full understanding of the phrase ‘local anaesthetic.’

Ben said: “In becoming a doctor medical students are essentially taught a new alien language which may contain as many as 13,000 new expressions and words, but if a doctor is to communicate successfully with patients they must also learn to translate this into lay terms.”

Some of the phrases patients were asked about in the research included:

  • Arrhythmia
  • Catheter
  • Cannula
  • ECG
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Pathology
  • Local anaesthetic
  • Epidural
  • Endoscopy

Eighteen per cent of patients surveyed said they wouldn’t feel confident enough to ask their doctor to clarify what they meant if they didn’t understand a word.

Dr Mcneil is now urging his fellow doctors to think carefully about the language they use and has presented his findings to 140 of his colleagues.

Dr Mcneil said: “Doctors often use medical terms almost subconsciously, not appreciating whether patients understand them or not. I hope my colleagues will take note of this research and seek to minimise their use of jargon on the presumption that there is a high probability their patients will not understand even commonly used technical medical words.”

He’s also keen for patients to speak up if they don’t understand something said during their consultation.


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