5 tips to avoid medical jargon

Patients will be confused if they don’t know what you’re talking about.

Do your patients have any idea what you’re talking about? If they get confused during a visit, at least they can ask. But they should not have to turn to Google to translate your site. In fact, I can guarantee you that they will not bother. If they do not understand your web writing, they will look for information–and make an appointment–elsewhere.

Health literacy, the ability to understand health information, is a real problem for many Americans. In fact, many medical journals and health articles cite this stat: About 90 million Americans (or two out of five) do not understand most health material.

It’s a serious problem, and one that national agencies are acting on. Consider these health literacy reports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the National Patient Safety Foundation.

Web writers play a crucial role in breaking down these barriers for patients. It’s a real challenge to write compelling web copy that can be understood by a fifth-grade audience but does sound not overly-simplified or “dumbed down.”

And it’s even more challenging to convince physicians that simpler medical writing is better. While your hospital’s marketing team may understand you are not writing for a prestigious medical journal, doctors can get caught up in their own world of medical jargon, plus they may feel pressure to impress referring physicians. But it’s your job to stay firm and write copy that’s accessible to all patients.

The top 5 sins of online medical jargon

Walk through any newsroom, statehouse, financial office or factory floor and you’ll hear it: Every industry has its own language. It’s called jargon. Doctors, however, can be notorious for letting official and lofty terms seep into their medical charts, patient conversations and everyday language.

It’s your job to translate in a smart, patient-friendly way. Make sure your audience doesn’t need a background in Latin roots to understand their diagnosis and treatment.

And please note: You don’t have to entirely eliminate or replace official terms and phrases. Just make sure you define them in the text. Offset simple and quick definitions with commas, dashes or parentheses. That way, you are educating your readers as well.

Here are some easy tips to get you started:

1. What is it: Put yourself in the patient’s shoes. When you have a medical problem, you want to know exactly what it is. Help them get there by using plain and simple language, even for everyday conditions. It’s not hypertension, it’s high blood pressure. Don’t say the patient is at risk of hemorrhaging. Tell them they could face severe internal bleeding.

2. Where is it: This may be the category with the most egregious errors. Just remember the children’s song: “Head, shoulders, knees and toes…” When a doctor says thoracic cavity, you write chest. People have arms and legs, not limbs. If you think about how you explain body parts to a toddler, then it should be easy. And that means you should never, ever use anterior or posterior when you could just say front and back.

3. What happens? Do not overcomplicate basic body functions. In the everyday world, people breathe, not aspirate. But don’t go overboard and sound silly or improper. For example, I dare you to find a hospital website that has found anything better for urinate.

4. How do you treat it: There are so many buzz words out there, especially as medical technically rapidly advances. Be mindful to define terms such as laparoscopic, robotic and endovascular. And don’t take for granted that patients know exactly how a minimally-invasive procedure works and how it differs from open surgery.

5. More on anatomy…or, more simply, your body: Doctors and their medical specialties have some great names. Heart specialists are cardiologists, and so forth. But think about ways to sub in more widely-used language wherever possible. There are a lot of renal complications. Can you use kidney? How about stomach for gastric? Wind pipe for tracheal?

A version of this story first appeared on Online it All Matters.

RELATED: Find out how to match social media strategy with traditional service-line marketing goals. Join Ragan and Mayo as we pair up for our 5th consecutive health care social media summit.


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