Doctors’ Jargon Often Confuses Patients, Leading to Worse Health Outcomes: Study

A misunderstanding of their required treatment or condition could result in patient harm, the researchers warn

Doctors often use complex phrases filled with medical “jargon” to explain conditions or test results, but a new study warns this language often confuses patients to the point that it negatively affects their health.

Sometimes, the way doctors explain things to patients can cause increased problems and make them more likely to make errors in their own medical care, according to the findings published last week in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School conducted a cross-sectional study that included a survey of 215 adults. They studied if patients understood the often-confusing phrases doctors used to explain medical conditions, test results, and imaging findings.

Understanding of Medical Jargon Varied Widely Among Patients

The language doctors use to explain medical information does not translate well to everyday English. The study warns that patients’ ability to understand and interpret medical jargon phrases varies widely.

For example, 96% of patients knew that when a doctor says they have a negative cancer screening, that means the results indicate they don’t have cancer. However, only 21% of patients understood if a doctor said their x-ray was impressive, that was bad news and indicated grim findings that worried the doctor. Yet 80% understood that an unremarkable chest x-ray was good news, meaning nothing was found.

About 79% of patients knew “your tumor is progressing” meant bad news. But only 67%, about two-thirds of patients, knew positive lymph nodes meant their cancer had spread from the original site to the lymph nodes.

“These findings suggest that several common phrases are misunderstood when used in a medical setting, with the interpreted meaning frequently the exact opposite of what is intended,” wrote study authors.

Medical Miscommunication Could Lead to Patient Harm

Researchers called the jargon-filled phrases doctors use disconnected and useless, highlighting the need for new doctors to use terms to effectively communicate with their patients. The researchers warned doctors’ use of jargon phrases can come with loaded interpretations and can be confusing to patients.

The most misunderstood term in the study was occult. Many people thought it meant something to do with witchcraft or demonic things. Instead, it simply means the issue was hidden, or not easily apparent to doctors.

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Overall, when jargon phrases and non-jargon phrases were compared, the non-jargon phrase was understood by patients significantly better.

Researchers warn it is important for doctors to use language that clearly explains the findings they want to convey to patients. If patients don’t understand test results, treatment plans, or steps doctors are asking them to take, it can cause more harm to the patient.

Researchers urged patients not to hesitate to ask questions and stop a doctor if they don’t understand a word, phrase, test result, or procedure. They should always feel empowered to ask a doctor to be clearer.


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