Confusing Medical Terminology Can Lead To Poor Patient Health

photo by Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

In most aspects of our lives, it’s usually alright to be at least a little confused–our health, however, is not one of those arenas.

Research by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RGCP) shows that communication breakdowns between doctors and patients are more common, and sometimes more deadly, than once thought.

According to research by the RCGP, nearly half of all UK adults report that health information conveyed by their doctors is too complicated to fully understand. Researchers warn this communication breakdown may open up the door to some serious negative health outcomes.

The Issue

According to the RCGP, the problem of confusing medical consultation stems from several factors:

  • Overestimating patients’ knowledge
  • Hesitance of confused patients to inquire further
  • Lack of patient knowledge

The disconnect between doctor and patient knowledge has created a noticeable rift in understanding. Researchers say that since doctors come from an extensive biological and medical background, they are more apt to lose sight of the reality of patient knowledge. Likewise, patients are sometimes too embarrassed to ask questions when they are confused.

Though doctors attempt to supplement their consultation by providing patients with leaflets or pamphlets, they too often fall short in filling the informational gaps.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”MPfa586U8MWobHmMgVw74NOTrlvcHeG1″]

According to the RCGP, 43 percent of UK adults do not fully understand text based information like hospital signs, pamphlets, or health guides.

Exacerbating the lack of patient understanding is the fact that those with the lowest level of health literacy are often poorer demographics who have the least available resources (i.e. access to the Internet).

In America, the National Patient Survey Foundation reports that 90 million (pdf) Americans are at risk due to lack of health literacy surrounding their ailments.

The effects

The consequences of these confusing medical interactions can sometimes range from detrimental to life-threatening in regard to patient health. Some common effects of confusing medical consultation are:

  • Mistreatment of dangerous health conditions like diabetes and heart disease
  • Increased likelihood of using emergency services and being admitted to the hospital
  • In elderly populations, shortfalls in health literacy have even been linked to an increased risk of death

A major area of concern for patients who do not fully understand their conditions may occur in between visits to their respective doctors. In this vulnerable period, patients may be unsure of how to respond to adverse medication reactions or even properly communicate their condition to other doctors.

Researchers found that even seemingly universal terms like ‘chronic’ have been misconstrued to mean ‘severe’ instead of persistent.

What can be done?

Fortunately for patients and doctors alike, the RCGP outlines some steps that doctors can take to help quell some of the confusion surrounding medical terminology.

  • Speaking slowly is recommended to improve patient comprehension
  • Avoiding jargon that may be misconstrued our outside of a patient’s general knowledge
  • Repeating major points to ensure patient understanding

The RCGP also recommends that doctors gauge their patients amount of understanding which may help them explain health related information at a level adequate to the patients knowledge base.

Through asking patients to repeat important information back to them, doctors can assess whether or not their patient has fully understood. To avoid seeming condescending, doctors are also encouraged to make clear that they are gauging “their own ability to communicate,”  as opposed to the patients’.

The takeaway

Unless one studies medical science or biology, doctors visits will likely lead to at least a little confusion. But the good news is, despite doctors being encouraged to take knowledge base into account, patients can still make an effort to help themselves. Some tips to cut down on communication breakdowns are:

  • Ask the doctor for information about support groups where you can speak to others with the same condition
  • Ask the doctor to repeat things that may be confusing
  • Request the doctor speak more slowly
  • Ask the doctor to provide simple resources that can help better your understanding
  • Ask for tips that can help regulate your condition before you leave the office


We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
James Pero