Some common medical terms may be more confusing than doctors think

Medical language can sometimes stump patients. And some common sayings are straight-up head-scratchers.

Calling a patient’s neurological exam “grossly intact,” for example, might not sound so great, says Michael Pitt, a pediatrician at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. But it actually means that everything is normal and working as expected.

In 2021, Pitt and his colleagues asked 215 adults at the Minnesota State Fair to decipher that language and 12 other medical sayings a patient might hear from a doctor or read in their notes. People can trip up on familiar words and phrases that have one meaning in everyday English and an entirely different meaning in medicine, the researchers report November 30 in JAMA Network Open.

Only about 20 percent of people surveyed, for example, understood what it meant when their doctor said, “The findings on the X-ray were quite impressive.” In plain language, that means the doctor is giving you bad news, Pitt says — the opposite of what some patients might expect.

When surveyed, doctors overwhelmingly agree that they should avoid medical jargon when speaking with patients, Pitt says. But many don’t even know they’re doing it. There’s a technical term for this too, Pitt adds: “jargon oblivion.”

He’s hoping his team’s results give doctors an “aha moment” and some awareness about phrases that might be puzzling patients. If a doctor says something that’s unclear, Pitt says, he wants patients to feel empowered to speak up.

He’s coached his family for years on this. When they go to the doctor, there’s one question in particular he wants them to ask. Before they leave an appointment, they’ll summarize what the doctor has said and ask, “Am I getting this right?”

“That type of phrase is amazing to have in your back pocket,” Pitt says.

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