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Medical jargon putting patients 'in harm's way': Study calls for doctor's lingo to be dumbed down 


Medical jargon putting patients in harm’s way: From an ‘impressive’ X-ray that’s actually worrying to a ‘negative’ test that should be seen as a positive thing… study calls for doctor’s lingo to be dumbed down

  • 215 people were tested on their knowledge of confusing medical terms 
  • A ‘grossly intact’ neurological exam is good news, but less than half knew this 
  • Almost all respondents understood a negative cancer result is actually positive

Patients are struggling to understand their doctors because of confusing medical jargon, a study has found.

Almost 80 percent of people do not know that the word ‘impressive’ actually means ‘worrying’ in a medical context.

Critics said using the word borders on ‘disrespectful’ because ‘we’re describing something as impressive that is causing real harm for patients’.

More than one in five percent of respondents could not work out the phrase ‘your tumor is progressing’, which means a patient’s cancer is worsening.

And the majority of participants failed to recognize that ‘positive lymph nodes’ meant the cancer had spread.

The researchers said future research should test alternative words to avoid miscommunications.

A 13-question survey tested fairgoers in Minnesota on their knowledge of medical jargon terms often used by clinicians

A 13-question survey tested fairgoers in Minnesota on their knowledge of medical jargon terms often used by clinicians

MEDICAL JARGON 

The survey revealed a host of terms which baffled members of the public: 

  • A ‘negative blood culture’ is a positive thing. 
  • An ‘impressive’ chest X-ray means the doctor is worried by it.
  • ‘Your tumor is progressing’ means a patient’s cancer is worsening.
  • ‘Positive lymph nodes’ means the cancer has spread.
  • ‘Bugs in the urine’ conveys a urinary tract infection.
  • ‘Febrile’ means feverish.
  • ‘NPO’ means no eating or drinking. The acronym comes from the Latin ‘nil per os’ and means  ‘nothing by mouth’.

Some 215 people attending the Minnesota state fair in September 2021 were tested on their knowledge of medical terms.

They were given a 13-question survey devised by University of Minnesota researchers, including a mix of multiple choice and open-ended questions.

For example, people were given a statement such as ‘your nodes are positive’, and asked to select if it was good news, bad news, or they didn’t know.

Almost all 96 percent of them understood that a negative result for a cancer screening was in fact a positive thing, and meant they didn’t have cancer.

However, 21 percent of respondents could not work out the phrase ‘your tumor is progressing’, which means a patient’s cancer is worsening.

Similarly, 67 percent of participants did not recognize that ‘positive lymph nodes’ meant the cancer had spread.

The word ‘impressive’ means something admirable to most people.

But when physicians describe a chest X-ray as impressive, they actually mean it is worrying. 

Some 79 percent of study participants did not get this meaning.

Only 44 participants correctly understood that a clinician was actually giving them bad news.  

Dr Giridhar Mallya, a former family physician and current senior policy director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told NBC News he found the word ‘impressive’ particularly troubling.

He said: ‘It borders on disrespectful because we’re describing something as impressive that is causing real harm for patients.’

A total of 80 percent understood that an unremarkable chest radiography was good news.

When a doctor describes a neurological exam as ‘grossly intact’, this is good news, which was picked up by 41 percent of respondents.

The researchers concluded that ‘care should be taken to avoid using [medical jargon] with patients to prevent misunderstanding’.

Future research should test alternative vocabulary to ‘improve communication with patients’. 

The study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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