“Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!”

If it’s your GP asking, there is a big chance that you don’t. We have all been there; no matter how hard you concentrate or how many “A’s” you got in English, you may still not understand what your doctor is trying to tell you.

Recently, there’s been a discussion on The Guardian Healthcare Network on whether the medical jargon used by doctors should be banned in favour of plain English. Should clinical staff keep using the medical terminology and be precise and consistent in the message they carry across but risk that the message might be misunderstood, or should they file the edges and translate into simple talk in order to make sure that patients understand every single word they say, but then risk simplifying the actual problem?

“For too many healthcare professionals, using incomprehensible jargon continues to be a badge of honour”, says Conor Farrington, research associate at the Cambridge Centre for Health Services Research, University of Cambridge. I agree to some extent, but feel that the patient should be familiar with the terminology that describes his or her condition, as they most likely will encounter these words throughout their treatment. However, at the same time I believe, Onisillos (also quoted in The Guardian debate) makes a valid point by saying: “Jargon exists to speed up the communication of familiar concepts between the initiated, so is useless when used outside this exclusive group.”

Being the daughter of a GP you would think I’d have a head-start in comprehending the mysteries of medicine communicated by the doctors. It doesn’t. I may have grown up with medical expressions flying around the household, but I am no closer to understanding what is wrong with me when my doctor explains the reason for my stomach ache. And while I have no problem listening to George Clooney in ‘ER’ shouting: “She will need three doses of drotaverine, which should release the tension in her smooth muscle tissue. And I know what you’re thinking [flashy George Clooney smile], but don’t worry, since it has no anticholinergic effects, it shouldn’t block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in her central and the peripheral nervous system”, when sitting in the doctor’s office myself, all I’d like to hear is a simple solution as to what I need to do to make the pain stop.

But jokes aside, altogether I believe in balance. I think that simple, plain English will not cut it in all cases and yet we cannot just cut the medical jargon out of our non-medical-degree lives, even if we might not understand it at first. While the doctors can try their best in attempting to explain the issues in simple words, sometimes the medical terminology cannot be simplified for the benefit of both, the doctor and the patient.

I think many patients looking to ‘ban’ the medical jargon might not see the bigger picture as to how they are benefiting from having to listen to the medical explanations. With today’s healthcare agenda partially shifting focus to patients taking responsibility for their own health, it’s important for the patient to have a good understanding of their condition. Also, as the adoption of electronic patient records and move towards paperless NHS is still gradual, many patients face the need to repeat and explain their condition to various clinicians they encounter during their patient journey. In which case precision in getting the message across and avoiding miscommunication is crucial.

My suggestion would be for clinicians to remember to use precise medical terminology along with a clear explanation in plain English to ensure the patient has completely understood. That way the patient will be familiar with the professional medical descriptions he or she might come across later but also have a clearer idea of what is actually happening to his or her body.

The question arises, with the time for each visit being constantly cut short whether there is time to use both medical and plain description, but that’s a subject of a whole new discussion.

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