Research Brief: Medical terminology can be confusing for patients
MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (12/15/2022) — Published in JAMA Network Open, University of Minnesota Medical School researchers found there is often a disconnect between the medical language used by doctors and patient understanding. This mismatch in clinicians’ intent to speak plainly with the reality that they continue to use confusing terminology is known as jargon oblivion. Their findings suggest that several common phrases are misunderstood when used in a medical setting and can often be interpreted in the exact opposite way of what is intended.
“If a doctor’s communication with patients is not understood, their health care plan is meaningless,” said Michael Pitt, MD, an associate professor at the U of M Medical School and pediatric specialist with M Health Fairview. “With this study, we aim to highlight to medical providers, like ourselves, how many phrases we use with patients that are misunderstood.”
More than 200 adults were surveyed at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. Each participant was given 13 phrases they may hear during a doctor’s visit and asked what they felt it meant. The results showed:
- While 96% of participants understood that negative cancer screening results meant they did not have cancer, only 67% correctly understood that having "positive" lymph nodes was bad news
- 21% of participants thought that the phrase “your tumor is progressing” was good news ;likely because progress has a positive connotation
- 79% of participants thought that if their clinician said their X-ray was ’impressive’ it was considered good news; ‘impressive’ typically means a doctor is worried about the results.
- 2% 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.
By being aware of the phrases that are often misunderstood, healthcare providers can broaden their definition of what they see as jargon and work to improve their communication with patients.
The research team plans to continue to study strategies to identify and eliminate jargon with the goals of improving communication between patients and their healthcare providers. They also plan to be back at the Minnesota State Fair in 2023 to continue their work in this area.
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.
Previously published research from this Minnesota State Fair study found speciality names and seniority titles are also sources of misunderstanding.
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.