Avoid Using Medical Jargon

Avoid Using Medical Jargon

Recently my friends and I have realised that we are using medical jargon without even noticing. We are medical students and are constantly learning new terms to describe our bodies, diseases, and treatments. We’ve had our head in textbooks for years now. We no longer remember what a lay-person (someone without professional knowledge) knows or doesn’t know about medicine. For example, do patients know that Radiology means getting an X-ray? Or that cardiology is related to the heart? It is important we are mindful of the language we use and should avoid using medical jargon in front of patients. I don’t want patients walking away from a discussion more confused than when they arrived. But I fear that this might have happened recently.

Experiential learning in a GP consultation

Clinical placements are a core foundation of medical training. They provide a fantastic opportunity for students to learn from patients and clinicians through experiential learning (learning on the job). But students can fall into the trap of using medical jargon, to impress their mentor. Just what happened to me.

When on placement, my mentor liked to check my knowledge by asking various questions. I like these exercises. They are an opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge in real-life clinical situations.

The problem is that these ‘quizzes’ often occur with a patient present in the consulting room. On this occasion, my mentor asked me to take the blood pressure of a patient. My mentor then asked me lots of questions about the patient’s potential management of care, based on clinical guidelines. By the end of the quickfire questions, I looked at the patient, feeling a bit smug that I had answered the questions correctly but she looked completely confused. I certainly didn’t avoid using medical jargon. Instead, I used jargon to impress my mentor and forgot the patient.

On reflection, I realise that she never asked us to explain what we were talking about. I regret not checking her level of understanding and giving her the opportunity to ask us questions. This was a prime opportunity for me to use a communication skill called ‘TeachBack to check how much the patient understood what I was saying.’ I could have asked her something like:

‘I have done a lot of talking so before we carry on, can you just tell me what you heard me say so that I can check I haven’t missed anything out?’

If the patient hasn’t quite understood what you have said, this will become clear and you can clarify any points with them. If I had done this, I could have practised describing the clinical guidelines and situation in lay terms.


Keeping grounded

As I mentioned, my friends and I have got used to speaking about medical topics in medical terms. This is our new language. But maybe we use this language as an opportunity to show off our knowledge to each other. But I guess we need to keep grounded. We need to keep things simple and ensure our patients and their families understand us. I wondered though what tools were available to help us monitor our use of jargon and layman terms. So, I turned to the research literature to help me. One study, in particular, caught my eye.

A group of medical students in Germany were asked to re-write patient medical reports into lay language. Each translation was supervised by a lecturer. The results of this study demonstrated that students engaging in this exercise were better able to identify and understand medical jargon and then re-write the report using lay language, which was more patient-centred. The students also felt more comfortable switching between medical terminology and lay language. I thought this sounded such a great exercise and something we should be encouraged to do in our medical schools. As an idea, perhaps we could spend time changing lecture notes on disease into normal language or we could practise making analogies of diseases or treatment for non-medics to read.

Read the research project 

Patient-centred approach

I am just about to go into my third year at medical school. During this year, we will spend more time on clinical placements. This means that we will have far more interactions with patients. I will need to be more mindful about what terminology and language I use. This will be a challenge because so far a lot of our communication skills are assessed in exam conditions, called OSCE’s with actors who play the part of patients. In these situations, we are encouraged to use medical jargon to demonstrate our knowledge. Now, I will need to remember to avoid using medical jargon in front of patients.

I want to look professional and demonstrate my knowledge to my mentors and trainers, but I want to use a more patient-centred approach to how I communicate with patients. This may be challenging at times, but practice makes perfect, right? We won’t always get it right but I hope my peers and I, use techniques like Teach Back to help us clarify patient understanding. After all, it is the patients health and well-being and we are there to support them and help empower them.

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