I'm sorry doctor, I don't speak medicalese

Posted by Athena Parthenos

Have you ever found yourself at a doctor's office with the awkward feeling of having some communication problems? Have you ever heard them asking you a totally incomprehensible question even if it was formulated in your own language? Or worse, have you ever been implicitly or explicitly corrected by them because of your choice of words? If so, don't worry, you are not alone! Personally, I lived many of these experiences during my life. I remember once, I was about 14 years old, I went to the doctor and told her I had a terrible headache, the doctor asked: "Is it a migraine, a cluster headache or just a mild discomfort?", I just looked at her with my eyes wide open since I had no idea of what the difference was, I just knew it hurt and I thought that was enough. The visit went on and the doctor asked me a lot of questions, at the end, when I saw the doctor's letter, I'm sorry, the medical record, I noticed that all my sentences had been actually translated! "I have a terrible headache" had become "the patient reports a severe discomfort, which, after the anamnesis, can be identified with a migraine...". Suddenly it all became clear to me: physicians speak another language! It seems like your language, but it's not! It has specific rules, terminology, syntax that only the experts of the field can understand and use properly. You may understand the content in general since the topic they usually refer to is part of your everyday life, but grasping every term is not for everyone.

I believe that going to medical appointments is often just like traveling to a foreign country, where people speak a language you barely understand but where communicating is your only key to survival, with the only significant difference that at the doctor's office you are not on vacation and you are generally in pain. The key is understanding that the problem does not lie in your lack of education, as it may seem at a first glance, but in the fact that you just didn't study the correct language for that environment, the medical language. According to a study carried out by the UK Royal College of General Practitioners and quoted by The Telegraph, the language used by doctors is so complicated that nearly half of the patients do not understand it, even hospital signs are misleading, leading to patients missing appointments, just as when you are at the metro station in a foreign country with your map (or smartphone) on hand trying to understand in which direction you need to go. The same study also highlights that people are unsure about the nature of their condition and treatment, because they do not understand the medical jargon and are ashamed of asking for clarifications. This clearly proves that what I might have slightly experienced is actually part of a larger and more significant communication problem, which can jeopardize people's lives.

If on one hand you can choose not to visit a country whose language you don't speak, on the other hand, unfortunately, you can't choose not to be sick and not to deal with your doctors, well, indeed you can do the latter, but it is not advisable. A precise and clear interaction between doctors and patients is crucial and cannot be overlooked, therefore, I believe both parties should do something to try and bridge this crucial gap. Before jumping to the conclusion that this is only doctors' fault, it needs to be noticed that they have spent years and years studying medical language, which is their everyday tool for communicating with each other (even with colleagues from foreign countries), and that thanks to this unique code, they can precisely and immediately know what they are dealing with. Using single technical terms, that might seem alien language for us, they clearly understand the picture behind a condition and can immediately act and find a solution without further explanations.

However, if, on one hand, the usefulness of medical language is unquestionable, on the other, practitioners probably too often overestimate the level of health literacy of their patients, not dwelling on significant details or concepts that they give for granted but that could actually improve communication and avoid dangerous misunderstandings. In turn, patients could try and discover how to decode the messages by learning the most important characteristics of the medical language which, as the other traditional languages, has its own rules, patterns and logic.

Communication is by definition a two-way street and I believe that both doctors and patients could contribute in enhancing their mutual understanding for their own good. Physicians could start empathizing a little bit more with their patients and understand the importance of providing more detailed explanations and using a simpler language. Patients on the other hand must realize that asking questions is not a sign of weakness but it’s their crucial right. If all this were to happen then maybe the overall doctor-patient interaction would significantly improve, reducing possible hazardous misunderstandings. However, as for all problematic situations, this ambitious but fundamental goal can be achieved only if both parties start acknowledging the problem and are committed to finding a solution. Ladies and gentlemen…It’s time to take action!

author: Selena Viel, translator at Athena Parthenos

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