Medical jargon may harm patient-provider communication: 5 findings

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Patient-provider communication may suffer when patients misunderstand commonly used medical terms, resulting in anxiety and ill-informed decision making, according to a study published in British Dental Journal.

Researchers recruited 123 oral and maxillofacial surgery clinic patients waiting for appointments at the outpatient center of King's College Hospital in London. Participants listed their education level and whether English was their first language before completing a questionnaire about the meanings of several medical terms.

In a multiple-choice section, the questionnaire asked participants to define blister, ulcer, malignant, lesion and benign. They also completed a free-written answer section, where they described the meanings of biopsy, tumor, lymph node, pre-malignant and metastasis.

Here are five findings from the study.

1. More than a third of participants did not know the meaning of terms such as "benign" or "lesion" and over half could not define "metastasis" or "lymph node."

2. The study team found 90 percent of participants correctly defined blister as a bubble of fluid under the skin. Seventy percent of participants correctly defined ulcer as an open sore or break in the skin.

3. Forty-five percent of patients correctly defined a biopsy as a test involving taking a sample. However, 30 percent incorrectly defined biopsy as a test specifically for cancer.

4. The least understood terms in the study were benign and metastasis. Thirty-three percent of participants responded "Don't know" for the meaning of benign and only six percent of participants correctly defined metastasis as the spread of a cancer to other areas of the body.

5. For approximately 27 percent of participants, English was not spoken as a first language. However, when the study team examined only those whose first language was English, there were no differences in how many questions they answered correctly based on education level.

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