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What are you communicating?

A recent study conducted by Bourquin et al., investigated the use of technical language by medical students in simulated patient interviews.(1) Investigators found that medical students often communicated by using words that were unfamiliar or confusing to patients. A few of the words used without explanation and that were unclear for patients included chemotherapy, hemorrhage, malignant, and pathology.


Potentially adding to the use of unfamiliar terminology, students sometimes asked closed ended questions like “Do you understand?” Though this question is likely an attempt to assess the patient’s understanding, the answer (yes or no) doesn’t allow for an appraisal of understanding, potentially creating more misunderstanding for both patient and practitioner. Investigators also documented that students sometimes gave false or non-explanations for terms they used.


This study was performed with medical students in simulated patient interview settings. Therefore, generalizing the results to experienced practitioners in a chiropractic setting may be a stretch, but then again, maybe not. For example, do you ever use the word “cervical?” To a DC, the term refers to the region of the spine just below the head, to others, a part of the uterus or a term with an unknown definition. How about the word “thoracic,” or other terms? I have used the word inflammation without clarification, resulting in misinterpretation to “infection.” The lack of clarification can inadvertently alarm or confuse patients and other healthcare providers.


Each health profession has its own unique terminology. I don’t suggest we abandon the use of all technical language when communicating with patients or other providers. However, I do suggest critically assessing the words we use. I suspect this is an area in which we all can and should improve.
Reference List
(1) Bourquin C, Stiefel F, Mast MS, Bonvin R, Berney A. Well, you have hepatic metastases: Use of technical language by medical students in simulated patient interviews. Patient Educ Couns 2015 Mar;98(3):323-30.

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