The Medical Language Barrier

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Has the internet influenced the way you take care of yourself?  It seems likely.  Research from the Pew Internet Project shows that 72% of US internet users surveyed had gone online to get some kind of medical information at least once in the past year.  The respondents’ searches motivated many of them to get healthier (56%), ask their doctor new questions or get a second opinion (53%), or consider treatment options (60%).

Unfortunately, online health research does have its negative aspects, as well.  The Pew study addresses one that we often hear about: the perils of self-diagnosis (luckily, 91% of those surveyed still agree it’s better to see a healthcare professional).  But another important issue that wasn’t mentioned is medical jargon on sites intended for the layperson.

As both a hypochondriac, and a freelance writer who’s had a few clients in the medical field, I have a lot of experience with online health information.  There are many great websites that explain conditions, symptoms, and treatment in a way that the average person can easily understand.  But often, pharmaceutical, symptom-checker, and other health-related sites use complex medical terminology, even if they’re targeting the general public.

I’m all for expanding one’s vocabulary, but when it comes to medical writing intended for the layperson, clarity is vital. In 2009, the CDC estimated that 90% of adults face challenges in following their doctor’s advice and getting health-related information because of “low health literacy” – that is, not understanding medical terminology.  Why don’t all mainstream health-related websites seem to take this into account?  From what I’ve experienced with colleagues and clients, it usually comes down to at least one of these factors:

1. The person publishing the information isn’t aware that most people are unlikely to understand some of the terminology.

2. The writer is quoting or paraphrasing source material and doesn’t know the equivalent in layperson’s terms.  A responsible writer should do research and “translate” medical jargon.  But sometimes….

3. …the writer is unable or unwilling to put in the time, and/or the person publishing their work doesn’t think it matters and wants to get it online as soon as possible.

It’s not particularly difficult to look up words we don’t understand.  But when we’re searching for medical information, many of us aren’t thinking logically.  We’re usually at least a little worried, whether about a daunting goal like losing weight, or concern over a possibly serious condition.  Information that’s riddled with inscrutable vocabulary can easily make you feel overwhelmed.  As the CDC’s findings attest, some people might decide to just guess their way through important information, while others might see the medical language barrier as an excuse to throw in the towel and not contact their doctor or seek treatment at all.  Clearly, unclear communication can be a serious health threat.

While there are initiatives to improve medical communication in “the real world,” it doesn’t seem like there’s been any large-scale effort to clear up these issues in the virtual one. If you’re doing medical research online, don’t give up.  Go into the experience with the idea that you may encounter words you don’t understand.  Have a dictionary open either on your computer or your desk.  Remember, getting information about your health can improve or even save your life.  ….And if it’s any consolation, maybe you’ll impress your doctor with some of the new vocabulary you’ve learned.

Alysa Salzberg

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2 thoughts on “The Medical Language Barrier

  1. Pingback: What Happened to Bedside Manner? | aiaConnect

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