Plain language and medicine—it’s a matter of life and death

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Trying to understand jargon is frustrating enough when you can’t understand your credit card agreement or insurance policy. But what if you don’t understand the directions from your doctor about when to take your blood pressure medication?

Like most professional communities, doctors have a language of their own. This is fine when they’re talking to their colleagues, but it’s a problem when they’re talking to their patients (unless those patients watch a lot of “Gray’s Anatomy”).

A prescription for confusion

Have you ever looked at your prescription before handing it to the pharmacist? People joke about how hard it is to read a doctor’s handwriting, but even when prescriptions are typed out, most patients still can’t understand them. The instructions mix Latin and English abbreviations to form a code where “ap” means “before dinner,” but “AP” means “before childbirth.” I wonder how often those two get mixed up.

Obviously it’s most important for the doctor and pharmacist to understand the language. But doctors usually give a prescription to the patient first. If the patient has any questions or wants to learn more about a prescription, all he or she has for a reference is a piece of paper with instructions in “medical-speak.”

Writing out clear, plain language instructions would help patients understand their care, reduce pharmacy errors and cut down the time that pharmacists spend tracking down doctors to clarify prescriptions.

It’s Greek to me

When doctors talk to their patients about diseases, symptoms, diagnostic tests and treatments, they often use of abbreviations and specialized medical terminology. Again, this language helps them to be precise and save time with their colleagues, but it can be bewildering to patients.

It’s a problem that’s attracted attention from the government. The Department of Education estimates that only 12 percent of English-speaking adults in the US have proficient health literacy skills. The rest of the public may have trouble understanding health information, getting the treatment they need and following doctors’ instructions.

In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services created a National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has even developed a tutorial to teach the public how to understand medical terminology. The tutorial is like a foreign language course that teaches Latin and Greek roots (e.g., oto-, enceph-, cardio-) so patients can understand what their doctors are talking about. It’s a nice service, but it seems optimistic to expect that the public is going to find this resource on the Web and take the time to study it.

In the end, it’s up to doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to communicate in a way that patients can understand. Eliminating jargon is a good first step.

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