You and your doctor may not always speak the same language — even if there is an interpreter in the room. That’s because, in addition to technical, professional medicalese, the regular words doctors use often have medical meanings that differ from the way we use them day-to-day.
University of Minnesota Medical School researchers found that there is a real disconnect between the medical language your doctor uses and their patients’ understanding.
“When medical providers are asked about these kinds of miscommunications, doctors overwhelmingly agree that they should avoid medical jargon when speaking with patients, but many don’t even know they’re doing it,” Michael Pitt, MD, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and pediatric specialist with M Health Fairview, said in a press statement.
Twenty-one percent of participants thought that the phrase “your tumor is progressing” was good news, likely because progress has a positive connotation.
More than 200 people were surveyed at the Minnesota State Fair for the study. Each person participating was given 13 phrases they might hear during a visit with a physician and asked what they thought those phrases meant.
The finding suggests there are several common phrases that are most likely to be misunderstood:
- Ninety-six percent of participants understood that negative cancer screen results meant they did not have cancer, but only 67 percent correctly understood that having “positive” lymph nodes was bad news.
- Twenty-one percent of participants thought that the phrase “your tumor is progressing” was good news, likely because progress has a positive connotation.
- Seventy-nine percent of participants thought that if their clinician said their x-ray was “impressive” it was considered good news. But “impressive” typically means a doctor is worried about the results.
- Two percent of patients correctly understood what was meant by a doctor being concerned about them having an “occult” infection. This means the doctor is worried about an infection that is hidden but more people thought this meant the doctor was worried they had been cursed.
“If a doctor’s communication with patients is not understood, their health care plan is meaningless, ” said Dr. Pitt. “With this study, we aim to highlight to medical providers, like ourselves, how many phrases we use with patients that are misunderstood.”
There are things you can do to help avoid miscommunication with your doctor:
- Make a list of questions and prioritize your concerns.
- Bring your medical information with you to the office.
- Consider bringing a family member or friend along with you.
- Take notes or have your companion take notes.
- Be sure you can see and hear as well as possible.
- If your doctor says something you don’t understand, ask the physician to explain until you get it.
- Request an interpreter if you need one.
The study is published in JAMA Network Open.