Our medical language is outdated

Human factors and non-technical skills have become increasingly the focus of a drive to reduce critical errors and improve patient safety in many healthcare settings. While the application of these principles had been widespread in other industries, most notably aviation, for many years, its foray into medicine is a relatively recent development.

Much emphasis has been placed on broader communication techniques such as closed loop communication, whereas our use of language and medical terminology has received much less attention and scrutiny. Medical English has changed little in the past century and is still largely rooted in ancient Greek and Latin etymology – a structure that aids categorisation but hinders communication.

We argue that in the era of modern medicine which relies on the concise, accurate exchange of information, traditional medical English is fundamentally ill-suited and, critically, endangers patient safety. Prefixes such as hypo- and hyper- are too easily confused both on paper, where we still often rely on handwritten notes, as well as in spoken word, particularly in a time-critical emergency on a busy ward. 

Plain English for patient safety

We propose to replace ambiguous jargon with plain phrases that are unequivocally understood, in spoken and written communication, by both frontline clinical staff as well as patients and their relatives.

By changing the way we speak about medicine, particularly in high-paced, high-stakes clinical settings, we aim to achieve:

  • Reduction of errors related to ambiguous spoken terminology

  • Reduction of errors related to illegible handwriting

  • Improving patient’s own understanding of their illness and management by eliminating or reducing unfamiliar terminology

  • A shift in emphasis away from intimate knowledge of academic terminology as a marker for healthcare professional’s excellence, towards pragmatic, patient centred communication

© 2017 by Hans van Huellen