Plain Language in Healthcare

In my profession there is a unique relationship between plain language and professional jargon. It is very important that anyone working in the field have the capacity to go between the two quickly and accurately, depending on the situation. When reading a patient chart it is important to be able to understand the patient’s medical history and their reason for being at the appointment. By the same token it’s important to be able to explain what is going on or what is going to be done for the patient in a way which is easy for them to understand.

Explaining to a patient that they need to fast before a blood test by not consuming anything for at least six hours is easy to understand. If the provider instead told the patient they need to be NPO for at least 6 hours before their draw it could easily create confusion. What does NPO mean? By draw does he mean the blood work? Healthcare is filled with acronyms that are based off of latin or greek. This makes a large number of the acronyms difficult for patients to recognize, even when there is context.

A specific example for echocardiography would be describing a valve as “leaky” as opposed to saying there is regurge or insufficiency. Insufficiency is a word that could easily be mistaken for being serious when talking to a patient about one of their heart valves. When the patient leaves and the report has to be written however it would be inappropriate for the sonographer to describe a valve as “leaky”.

As our course has stressed so consistently, the important thing when determining which style of speaking is appropriate is knowing the audience. Not all patients require layman’s terms. A former cardiologist would not need to have terminology altered to have understanding. The key is using phrasing that is easily understood by whoever the audience is. If it’s someone in healthcare, explain professionally. If it’s someone elderly with no knowledge of medical terminology, use plain language.