When medical words are confusing

Many people find medical jargon difficult to fully understand. You may not be familiar with certain medical words, especially if you are hearing them for the first time in a doctor's office.

Family Physician Dr. Karen Hershenfield recognizes that patients and their families might feel embarrassed to ask for clarification if they don't understand something, or they may not be given the opportunity to ask questions.
Dr. Karen Hershenfield
Family Physician Dr. Karen Hershenfield

“It's important for patients, when possible, to actively participate in their health care,” says Dr. Hershenfield. “Patients and their families need to be empowered to make the best decisions they can, and that means fully understanding what is being communicated to them by their health care providers.”

In some instances there may be a common word that most people would understand, but a physician may use a clinical term to reference what they observe after examining a patient. For example, Dr. Hershenfield might refer to a mole on a patient's skin as a nevus, which is the medical term for it. She may then have to explain to the patient what she is referring to, as this is not a common term in everyday language.
Ask your doctor to clarify what something means if you don't understand the medical term.
Ask your physician to clarify what something means if you don't understand the medical term.

“As physicians and health care providers, it's necessary to use medical terminology as it is the most correct label for diagnoses, tests and more,” says Dr. Hershenfield. “It also helps for health care providers to communicate with each other by using the same and consistent wording. Sometimes layman's terms can over simplify or may not translate exactly to the correct medical term.”

The average person's ability to understand medical words can be quite low; and low health literacy can lead to additional visits to a hospital, misuse of medications and poor health choices.

“Ask your doctor to clarify what something means, not using medical speak,” recommends Dr. Hershenfield. As a patient or concerned family member, don't feel you have to pretend to understand when you don't. Also, consider looking up words in a dictionary and/or a reputable medical website.

Here are a few commonly used medical words that people often confuse:

Dementia and Alzheimer's: 
Dementia is a term used to describe the overall decline of memory or the ability to think to the point where someone is struggling to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's is a disease, and one that falls under the term dementia. It is the most common cause of dementia among older adults.

Prognosis and diagnosis: A diagnosis identifies a condition through the observation of symptoms. A prognosis is a prediction of the way a condition may progress and its outcomes. Once a diagnosis is made, a doctor may then also give a prognosis.

Artery and vein: Arteries carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Veins carry blood from the rest of the body back to the heart. Almost all arteries carry oxygenated blood and almost all veins carry deoxygenated blood.
September 6, 2018
This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of The Pulse, North York General Hospital's community newsletter. Subscribe to receive 10 issues per year.

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