Research Brief: Medical jargon is source of confusion for non-physicians

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MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (10/13/2022) —  Published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, University of Minnesota Medical School researchers examined whether the general public understands the medical jargon that physicians typically use in their introductions to patients. They found speciality names and seniority titles are sources of misunderstanding.

“Jargon is pervasive in medicine and the opportunity for misunderstanding due to this terminology begins the instant that physicians introduce themselves to patients,” said Emily Hause, MD, MPH, a pediatric rheumatology fellow at the U of M Medical School. “We found that most people can't define specialty names nor correctly rank medical seniority titles. Physicians should describe their medical specialty and role on the patient's care team in plain language to help reduce this source of potential confusion.”

Volunteer participants at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair completed an electronic survey that measured their knowledge of medical specialties and titles. Of the 14 specialties included in the survey, six specialties were correctly defined by less than half of the respondents: 

  • Neonatologists: 48%

  • Pulmonologists: 43%

  • Hospitalists: 31%

  • Intensivists: 29%

  • Internists: 21%

  • Nephrologists: 20%

When asked to rank medical roles, only 12% of participants correctly placed these titles in order: medical student, intern, senior resident, fellow and attending.

Further research is suggested to survey knowledge on additional specialties and obtain more demographic information. 

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences grant UL1TR002494. Funding was also provided by the University of Minnesota Driven to Discover grant. 

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About the University of Minnesota Medical School
The University of Minnesota Medical School is at the forefront of learning and discovery, transforming medical care and educating the next generation of physicians. Our graduates and faculty produce high-impact biomedical research and advance the practice of medicine. We acknowledge that the U of M Medical School, both the Twin Cities campus and Duluth campus, is located on traditional, ancestral and contemporary lands of the Dakota and the Ojibwe, and scores of other Indigenous people, and we affirm our commitment to tribal communities and their sovereignty as we seek to improve and strengthen our relations with tribal nations. For more information about the U of M Medical School, please visit med.umn.edu.

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