The language of medicine

The language of medicine can be complicated. Does it need to be this way?

Several weeks ago, I began my studies for a Master’s degree in Journalism. I’m continuing to work as a physician, but for the next two years, I’ll also be gaining knowledge in an important field: health communication.

I recall being a medical student and observing the different ways in which my supervising doctors spoke with their patients. Some doctors communicated clearly and were easily understood. Others used words that I had never even heard of. I remember thinking—if I, as a second-year medical student, am having trouble understanding, what is the patient gaining from the conversation?

As health professionals, we become very familiar with the language of medicine. So familiar that we often assume our patients understand us when they do not.  I recently told a patient that I wanted to check her for hypertension. She gave me a perplexed look and asked, What’s that? When I clarified that I wanted to check her blood pressure, she was relieved.

In the teaching setting, the supervising physician may ask the patient, “is it okay if we talk shop?” After this, the physician discusses the patient’s illness with the student using medical jargon. Meanwhile, the patient looks on with a blank stare. I wonder whether patients think we are leaving them out of the loop on purpose. Maybe we are. Why do we have to say the word epistaxis to refer to a nosebleed?

While medical terminology is exclusionary, the complicated words may also serve a purpose. Saying that a patient has epigastric pain is more efficient and precise than saying that the patient has pain in the region of the central part of the belly above the bellybutton but below the breast bone. This argument for precision is not always valid, though. The word kneecap is just as precise and efficient as the medical word for the same structure (the patella).

As a person who loves words, I can appreciate the poetry of some medical words. Mittelschmirz is the name given to the pain that some women experience during ovulation. Borborygmi describes the sounds of a rumbling stomach.  Defervescence is when a fever goes away.

What should we do with all of these words?

When communicating with patients, let’s keep it simple. When communicating with our colleagues, why not also keep it simple? Though this idea may be counter-culture, as Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


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