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If doctor says 'X', patients often hear 'Y', study suggests

Not only do people often misunderstand what doctors tell them, but they also sometimes think common medical phrases mean the exact opposite, a new study suggests. Photo by John Liston/Flickr
Not only do people often misunderstand what doctors tell them, but they also sometimes think common medical phrases mean the exact opposite, a new study suggests. Photo by John Liston/Flickr

Nov. 30 (UPI) -- At their next doctor's appointment, people might consider carrying along a handy dictionary of common medical jargon to avoid confusion -- or asking more questions for better understanding.

Not only do people often misinterpret what doctors tell them, but they also sometimes think common medical phrases mean the exact opposite, according to a new study by University of Minnesota researchers.

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"Health care professionals regularly use jargon when communicating with patients, despite acknowledging that it should be avoided," Dr. Rachael Gotlieb, the primary author, and her colleagues said in an original investigation published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers said that while medical language may facilitate communication between health care professionals, "its use with patients can introduce confusion that may have serious consequences."

RELATED Study: Doctors should tailor communications to match patients' health literacy

And this occurs, the researchers said, because health care professionals "simply assume our patients understand the terminology we are using."

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The scientists said they believe this is the largest study of patients' understanding of medical jargon to date.

Nearly all adults surveyed for the study knew "negative cancer screening results" meant they did not have cancer, according to the study. But only 79% of them understood that "your tumor is progressing" was bad news, and only 67% knew "positive nodes" meant cancer had spread.

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And the confusion doesn't end with how doctors communicate about cancer to their patients.

Eight in 10 people recognized that "an unremarkable chest radiography" was good, but only 21% correctly understood that a clinician saying their radiography was "impressive" was generally bad news.

And only 41% of the survey's respondents correctly interpreted "neuro exam is grossly intact" as good news.

RELATED Most people lie to their doctors, study says

The researchers found 29% of people correctly interpreted "bugs in the urine" as intending to convey a urinary tract infection, and only 9% knew what "febrile" -- having a fever -- meant.

The survey involved 215 adult volunteers, recruited at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair near St. Paul, and given a written or verbal survey. None worked or was trained to work in the medical field, and all spoke and read English.

The 13-question survey included a mix of short answer and multiple choice questions.

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Several questions included paired phrases to assess differences in understanding with or without medical jargon. And, In each of the paired phrases, the non-jargon phrase was understood significantly better.

The researchers said they wanted to understand whether certain demographic factors, such as age, gender or education, were associated with differences in understanding.

Age didn't seem to help.

"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 said in their paper.

They also wanted to see whether the method of administering the survey, written versus verbal, changed how well respondents understood the phrases. It didn't seem to matter.

"Given that in everyday language we do not talk about the act of eating or drinking as taking something by mouth, perhaps the clearest way to indicate that a patient should abstain from oral intake is to simply say, 'You should not have anything to eat or drink,'" the researchers said.

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