Doctors have a language all their own. They use terms such as "lipid profile" for a test measuring cholesterol and other fats in the blood, and "dysplasia" for abnormal cells that can turn cancerous. While doctors typically translate medical jargon into patient-friendly terms, they can slip. And if you don't understand what your doctor is saying, it may lead to problems when you get home.
"What if you don't understand a medication regimen or follow-up instructions? Evidence shows communication gaps between providers and patients affect health outcomes," says Vish Viswanath, the Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Why use jargon?
Doctors around the world use standardized medical terms for a common frame of reference, regardless of their native language.
"They're using technical terms so all physicians are on the same page," Viswanath says. "And as medical science advances, doctors must be as specific as possible. The treatment of choice may depend on it." For example, breast cancer that's "hormone receptor–positive" and needs estrogen or progesterone to grow would require certain treatments to lower hormone levels. But those wouldn't help "hormone receptor–negative" cancer.
Medical term glossary
Here are some common medical terms you may hear in your doctor's office.
Acute: Newly occurring and lasting for a short period.
Arrhythmia: An abnormal heart rhythm.
Atherosclerosis: Narrowing of the arteries, caused by the buildup of fatty deposits called plaque.
Biopsy: A procedure to remove a small amount of tissue for examination in a laboratory, to diagnose disease.
Body mass index: A calculation that uses your height and weight to estimate your body fat level.
Cardiovascular disease: An umbrella term for all diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels.
Chronic: Long-lasting and persistent.
Dermatitis: Skin inflammation.
Edema: Swelling due to fluid buildup in body tissues.
Hemorrhagic stroke: Bleeding in the brain (caused by a leaking or burst blood vessel) that interferes with brain function.
Hypertension: High blood pressure.
Ischemic stroke: A blockage of blood flow to the brain (typically caused by a blood clot) that interferes with brain function.
Lesion: An abnormal area of tissue that results from disease or injury.
Myocardial infarction: A disruption of blood flow that kills part of the heart muscle; also called a heart attack.
Sarcopenia: Age-related muscle loss.
Ulcer: An open sore that can occur on the skin or inside the body, such as in the lining of the stomach.
Coping with jargon
You may be uncomfortable asking your doctor to explain medical information. Perhaps you feel embarrassed or intimidated — or it's just too much when you're sick or stressed. Maybe you have cognitive decline or hearing problems. Or there could be cultural differences that affect your interpretation of certain terms. These are all understandable. However, it's in your best interest, and the doctor's, to make sure you have the most positive health outcome possible. And that depends on good communication. Consider the following approach.
Prepare in advance. Write a list of questions to ask during the appointment, and bring it with you. Tell the doctor about the list at the start of the visit, so the doctor can leave time for questions. "Evidence shows that patients who go to a doctor appointment prepared with questions leave with greater satisfaction than those who don't," Viswanath says.
Speak up. Stop the doctor if you hear something you don't understand. "It's okay to ask, 'When you say this, what do you mean?' The doctor has a duty to help you," Viswanath says.
Bring a friend or family member. A buddy can act as a second set of ears, ask questions you may not think of, and write down important information for you.
Repeat the advice. Tell the doctor what you heard. Ask if you got it right. If not, have the doctor explain it again.
Be firm. You don't have to learn to speak the language, but it will help if you resolve to become a skilled advocate for yourself.
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