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Should healthcare professionals use more patient-friendly language?

February 9, 2024
Last summer, regulations created by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in America focused on transparency. This referred to price increases in medical care and the use of medical jargon.
This means that if organisations present medical records, cost data or descriptions of billing codes to patients without removing the medical jargon or providing context, they could be subject to penalties. Could this be the answer to more inclusive and accessible care for all?

The need for patient-friendly language

America is not isolated in its need for more patient-centred comms – it’s something the UK has grappled with, too.

In 2018, doctors were advised to drop the Latin lexis and embrace plain English. For many medical professionals, the use of Latin terminology is considered normalis usu; until the 1960s it was a requirement for entry into medical schools.

Latin terminology is adopted and understood by medical communities internationally, keeping reports and correspondence between professionals concise, and contributing to their “educational intentions”.

Only, when patients are also privy to that same information, it can be alienating. In the UK, around 15 to 21 million people are considered to have a ‘low health literacy’, which means they’re not as able to understand what health professionals are telling them, or comprehend health literature given to them. Many struggle to interpret letters from their GP, for example, or educational leaflets provided for their care.

The risk of misunderstanding, therefore, can be big and creates a challenging environment for patients to try and explain their own concerns. This can have dangerous consequences for those who need continual care.

Health tech's role in more accessible communications

It’s well documented that patients want to be more involved when it comes to making decisions about their healthcare – access to their medical information means those decisions can be well informed.

And with the advancement of health tech, it’s never been easier to share information with patients about their care. Sharing notes and other documentation directly from an electronic patient portal is great for accessibility (not only because it rids doctors of that age-old ‘bad handwriting’ trope!), but also it requires professionals to be even more vigilant in explaining complex medical terms from SNOMED, for example.

The idea of simplifying patient language is nothing new – in fact, 80 years ago the IMRAD was instated. (Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion – itself a confusing acronym for the narrative structure of most medical research papers.)

Created by Sir William Osler, this guidance aimed to “keep medicine human” and avoid patients detaching from their care journey.

More recent UK guidance, aptly called ‘Please, write to me’, calls for something similar. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges’ research shows patients respond better when outpatient letters are written directly to them, rather than to their GP about them, with information explained in a simplified and empathetic manner.

The key advantages of dropping the jargon

The benefits of communicating in plain English are myriad. Patients are more likely to understand a treatment plan, and will pay a bill on time if they know exactly what they owe.

But it also saves crucial time for the entire healthcare team. Those cases where key information is not understood could lead to multiple calls and emails, even another GP visit just for further context. Or worse, patients turning to Google and getting pseudo-advice in return.

It’s no easy feat, though. There is an art to explaining complex outcomes with simplified language, to detail an intricate procedure plainly without losing the minutiae of the process. The devil is in the details, after all.

It may take some getting used to, but experts believe that cutting medical jargon from communications is the key to promoting a positive care journey experience for all. Not only will patient-friendly terminology help patients, but it has the potential to elevate one clinic above the rest.

Top tips for embracing patient-friendly language

  1. Describe your services, including pricing, in plain language – patients need to fully understand what they’re paying for.

  2. Avoid the use of Latin in communications that involve patients. For example, use “twice daily” instead of “bd”.

  3. Use more basic terms, such as "kidney" instead of "renal".

  4. Explain certain jargon in the body of your letters: “You have an irregular pulse. This is called atrial fibrillation.” This is easier to read and understand than using brackets for medical terms.

  5. Avoid phrases like "Your presenting complaint was" and try “You went to your GP because…”.

  6. Explain your acronyms: "CTR-D = Cardiac Resynchronisation Therapy-Defibrillator".

  7. If including test results, explain their significance. Don’t include potentially upsetting results; call the patient instead.

  8. Use an active voice, instead of passive. It brings both you and the patient into the conversation. 
    Active: “You decided to have the heart bypass operation
    Passive: “The decision was made to go ahead with the heart bypass operation”.

  9. Try using different words when using medical terms that could be misconstrued. For example, “Chronic” is often taken as “really bad” rather than “long-standing”.


*These tips and more can be found in The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges' guidance, 'Please, Write To Me: Writing Outpatient Clinic Letters to Paitents'.