How to translate your doctor’s medical jargon

June 16, 2020 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
medical jargon

Would you understand if your doctor told you your EKG was unremarkable or your condition was idiopathic? Like all professions, medicine has its own vocabulary. Unfortunately, most patients aren’t fluent in the language of medical jargon and many doctors don’t provide plain English explanations when sharing information, test results, or recommendations with their patients.

That failure to communicate clearly can create problems. How can you follow your doctor’s recommendations or take the right steps to manage your condition if you don’t clearly understand what’s being said?

The problem of patients not understanding what their doctors tell them is more common than you may think. An article published in Journal of General Internal Medicine noted that physicians use terminology that their patients do not understand as often as 70 times during a single patient visit. So how can you make sure you’re on the same page as your doctor and are correctly translating any medical jargon he or she uses?

  • If you don’t understand, ask questions. It’s important to advocate for yourself if your doctor is using medical jargon, technical terms, or any language you don’t understand. Ask for an explanation in layman’s terms or for a definition of any words that aren’t familiar to you. And remember, if you still don’t understand after the doctor’s explanation, you have a right to ask for further clarification.
  • Repeat what you think you heard your doctor say. Even if you think you understand what your doctor just said, you should repeat it back to the doctor to make sure you do have an accurate understanding.
  • Bring someone with you to your appointment. Especially if you’re getting results from an important test or have been diagnosed with a serious or complex condition, it can be helpful to bring someone with you to the appointment to take notes and ask questions as needed. For example, if you receive a diagnosis of a serious disease such as cancer or heart failure or receive a recommendation for surgery, you may be upset and unable to concentrate on what the doctor is telling you, missing important information that could affect your ability to make informed medical decisions. You can ask a trusted family member, friend, or health advisor to attend the appointment and support you.
  • Ask for additional information. One important key to making informed medical decisions is gathering evidence-based information about your condition and the proposed treatment options. For example, if your doctor recommends back surgery, ask if there are other treatments that may be appropriate and if he or she can recommend any studies or other resources you can review as part of your decision making process. Getting a second opinion is also a wise choice if you’ve been diagnosed with a serious, complex, or rare condition or have been told you need surgery.
  • Find out how you can get answers to questions that come up after your appointment. After reading further about your condition or treatment, getting a second opinion, or simply having time to reflect on what your doctor said, you may have additional questions and concerns. Before the end of your appointment, ask your doctor how you can get in touch and get your questions answered. Does she or he use a portal, email, or have call-in times when you can get in touch?


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