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Doctors Urged To Tone Down Medical Jargon

Daniela Ochoa, a UAMS Surgical Oncologist, takes the Plain Pledge for Health Literacy Awareness Month and shows a word she plans to replace.

As part of Health Literacy Awareness Month this October, doctors and other health care professionals are being urged to ditch the medical jargon and adopt plain, real-world language that will be easier for patients and caregivers to understand and remember.

Arkansas Public Media spoke with Alison Caballero, program director with the UAMS Center for Health Literacy, about the effort to get health professionals to break the habit of using advanced medical terminology.  

Credit UAMS
Alison Caballaro with UAMS's Center for Health Literacy

ALISON CABALLERO: To use what we call plain language, some people might refer to it as living-room language, with the patients and the community members that they serve.  Providers spend many years in formal educational programs learning medical terminology that they use feely with one another.  But sadly, when they use a lot of those same words with patients and families, the message’s intended meaning doesn’t come across fully to patients and families because we’re not familiar with that language.  We didn’t participate in that formal education.  So we’re asking providers this month during Health Literacy month to pledge to use plain language, to avoid jargon and to focus on those everyday words that all patients and community members can understand.

ANN KENDA: What are some examples of jargon that needs to be replaced with plain language?

CABALLERO: So there are many words that we could talk about that are good examples of jargon.  Some favorites of mine actually are comorbidities.  When we think about the word ‘comorbidities’, that’s not a familiar term to most people in the public, but it’s a commonly used term in the public health community and in the health care community. And it really is about people’s underlying health conditions that might not be the health condition they are being seen for at the moment, but something big that contributes to their overall health. So the person may present with the flu but perhaps that person has diabetes as well, and so that diabetes would be considered a comorbidity.  A couple of other examples of what we might consider jargon: a word like ‘terminal,’ when you talk about a terminal illness.  That’s simply an illness that a person is not expected to recover from. We hear the word ‘ambulatory’ used a lot. Go for an ambulatory visit, head over to the ambulatory clinic.  What that means is simply just walk-in or outpatient, as opposed to a hospital setting.

KENDA: Cabarello says health literacy is a two-way street.  Patients also need to be involved.

CABARELLO: When people think about going to the doctor, often times we’re so glad to get the appointment and to get in and get seen for whatever has brought us there that we don’t prepare.  And if we prepare, we really can improve the quality of the communication that happens between us and our doctors. And the way that we can do that is to really jot down, before we go, what it is that we want to get out of the visit, what our questions are for providers.  And another tip that we give to everyone is to repeat back to their doctor what they think they heard.  Often, there’s a lot of information thrown at you in a health care visit.  So if you can take a moment before you leave, to just repeat back to your doctor what you think you heard, in your own words.  I know that I’ve been that patient that’s left the doctor’s office and gotten to my car and already I’ve forgotten something that he’s said so I have to call or go back in. So if you can repeat all that back to your doctor before you leave the visit, you will leave knowing exactly what you need to do to take care of your health when you leave.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.


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