Plain English prescribed for doctors
Doctors in the UK were advised this month to adopt a policy of writing in a way which is easier for patients to understand. This drive towards plain English is to be applauded, with caveats, and perhaps other professions should follow suit.
If you have ever been referred by your GP to the local hospital as an out-patient, to see a specialist consultant, after your visit the consultant will write to your doctor who will then typically forward a copy of the letter to you. However, the opaque nature of medical terminology often means patients need to return to the GP's surgery to have the letter explained. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) has suggested that specialists should write directly to the patient wherever practical, sending a copy of the correspondence to their GP, and should avoid jargon and stick to plain English.
I know from personal experience that when a doctor says the result of the test was negative, you have to ask if a negative result means it is a good thing or a bad thing, and when he told me I would need to see the phlebotomist and I worriedly asked "phlebotomist?" he clarified "the nurse who takes the blood sample".
The AMRC advisory suggests avoiding jargon such as dyspnoea, and instead say breathlessness, and likewise avoid confusion for the patient by saying swelling instead of oedema, use liver instead of hepatic, and change pulmonary to lung. A most useful suggestion is to avoid the use of chronic to describe long-term pain, as many people think chronic means severe and unbearable.
It would be good if other professions also used plain English more. Accountants and solicitors seem to go out of their way to use terminology which is designed to be unintelligible, not only by stringing together latin phrases and long tortuous sentences, but also with arbitrary capitalisation that deviates from rules of English. Remember, English has evolved over many lifetimes and its rules are intended to aid readability and avoid ambiguity.
On many websites, the terms and conditions documents are prime examples of how not to communicate with customers, and are surely there to intimidate rather than to inform. Just about anything to do with technology is littered with jargon, and just about every day I hear someone misusing a technical term. not because they are trying to communicate, but because they want others to think "I didn't understand a word of that,... he must be really clever".
However, we should keep in mind that specialist professions, such as doctors, have specialist terminology for a reason. It is so that they can communicate clearly and unambiguously with fellow professionals. It is okay for you to tell your doctor that every time you see a spider, you have a heart attack, but your doctor's notes need to record that you have severe arachnophobia, not that you have suffered a succession of myocardial infarctions.
Doctors, nurses, and clinical staff, like anyone else, don't always write as plainly as they should, and can come up with some howlers. These are all genuine documented examples of observations from trained medical staff:
* She is numb from her toes down
* On the second day the knee was better, and on the third day it disappeared completely.
* The patient left the hospital feeling much better, except for her original complaints.
Psychological assessment is equally incisive:
* The patient is tearful and crying constantly. She also appears to be depressed.
* The patient has been depressed since she began seeing me in 1993.
Background information about patients can be useful to doctors:
* She stated that she had been constipated for most of her life until she got a divorce.
* Patient has two teenage children, but no other abnormalities.
And finally, my favourite:
* The patient lives at home with his mother, father and pet turtle, who is presently enrolled in day care three times a week.
27th September 2018
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.