Medical English: Lifting the Language Barrier in Health

Molte professioni hanno un linguaggio tecnico, spesso incomprensibile ai più, come nel caso dei medici. Il Regno Unito sta cercando di facilitare la comunicazione tra operatori sanitari e pazienti.

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Sarah Davison

Speaker (UK accent)

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British flags in Worthing pay homage to the National Health Service and display the World War Two slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

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Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is considered to be one of the best public healthcare systems in the world. The UK’s medical professionals offer an excellent level of care. The problem, however, is that often members of the public — while appreciating the first-class treatment — do not understand what these professionals are saying to them!

Fatal Barrier

Medical jargon is an important, sometimes fatal, barrier to successful communication. It is very easy for patients to misunderstand their doctors. To give just two examples: doctors can talk about a test as ‘positive’ or an illness as ‘acute’. We, the public, understand the word ‘positive’ as something good, but in the medical world a ‘positive’ test is not good news. They were testing for something ‘bad’ … and they found it. And ‘acute’, for a health care worker, does not necessarily mean ‘terrible’ (we think of ‘an acute shortage of water’, for example), but rather ‘long-standing’.   

Improving Communication

Poor ‘health literacy’ can have an important impact on a person’s health, even making their lives shorter. People who have problems understanding medical information are more likely to end up in the emergency room or spend more time in hospital. They do not get vaccinated against seasonal flu or go for screening tests, because they do not understand public health campaigns.   

The NHS website is one of the most-visited websites in Britain, with over 43 million visits a month. In order to improve communications between medical professionals and the public, the website is gradually incorporating the language that ordinary people use. Around 40 per cent of those who consult the website have poor health vocabulary, while 60 per cent have problems with numbers.

There are also other factors to consider. When a person consults the website, they could be worried or even desperate, or affected by medication, or perhaps English is not their first language. Some people are embarrassed to show their ignorance and do not ask family or friends for help. They could also have literacy problems, such as dyslexia. Making the information easy to find and then understand is vital. 

Problem Guide

The NHS website offers a short guide to help people understand particular problems. The guide answers basic questions and initiates the public into a new language, which allows them to communicate with their doctors using authentic medical expressions. The website language is simple, even child-like. The site talks about ‘pee’ and ‘waterworks’, and not ‘urinating’, for example. The vocabulary can be graphic, with moles described as ‘flaky’ or ‘leaking’, and not ‘suppurating’.  

The simplicity of the English is most obvious in the website’s guide, ‘The A to Z of NHS Writing’. People can find medicines at the ‘pharmacy’ rather than the ‘chemist’, as ‘pharmacy’ is much more popular as a search term in Google. Instead of ‘diuretics’, the guide refers to ‘tablets that make you pee more’. The term ‘e.g.’ is avoided as many people do not know what it means, so the site uses ‘such as’ or ‘like’. Numbers, measurements and dosages are also spelt in full, as abbreviations can cause errors. On the page about flatulence, you will find ‘farting’ and not ‘passing wind’ or ‘breaking wind’ — these phrases often confuse foreigners! The ‘oesophagus’ is also called the ‘foodpipe’. 


Doctors and Patients

Many people do not understand expressions relating to hospitals. This is important if a general practitioner recommends treatment which necessitates a hospital visit. What exactly is a Department of Radiology or Oncology? Sometimes people do not know that they have cancer because they do not know what ‘oncology’ means. People do not connect X-rays with radiology. Is radiology connected with radios? Jargon here can be fatal.

‘Better’ Patients

In one sense, behind attempts to improve the level of communication between doctors and patients is the idea of having ‘better’ patients, which in turn helps doctors. As Dr. Hugo Rayner, a consultant for the NHS website, said on BBC Radio earlier this year: “Most Western illnesses are long-term conditions that you have to live with, and so the more that you can educate the patient to look after themselves and support them to look after themselves, then the easier your life is as a doctor.”

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