10 Jargon Healthcare Terms You Must Never Use

Improving health literacy

Jargon is the scourge of all industries, but nowhere is it more damaging than in healthcare. Misunderstanding what a health worker is saying regarding treatment might make the difference between life and death in a patient.

Health literacy rates are remarkably low in this country–according to the Health Literacy Fact Sheet 9 out of 10 people don’t have the skills necessary to manage health and prevent disease.

Patients may understand far less than you think they do. According to a study from the Department of Emergency Medicine, State University of New York at Buffalo, a group of 249 adults understood less than half of the terms they were asked, including:

  • 79% didn’t know “hemorrhage” meant “bleeding”
  • 78% didn’t know “fractured bone” meant “broken”
  • 74% didn’t know “myocardial infarction” meant “heart attack”

With some minor effort, low health literacy rates can be improved. Start in in your organization by eliminating any convoluted terms that don’t sound like they came from a human, but a laboratory. Start with the three bullet points above, and also start using plain language for these:

Instead of …

Use …


Pain killer




Not cancer




Keep track of, keep an eye on


Send you to another doctor



That list is only a start. Once you begin re-evaluating the way your organization uses terminology, you’ll likely realize there are other areas in which you can improve: for instance, stop using just about any acronym. The Allnurses.com forum has an interesting discussion in which nurses share anecdotes about misunderstood medical terminology (hint: don’t use “SOB” to mean “shortness of breath”) that shows the unexpected bredth of miscommunication.

For more information on helping to reduce low health literacy rates in your organization, register for our online course Health Literacy: A Start. If you’d like to find out more about our training programs, book a free consultation and we’ll contact you to discuss an e-learning program that fits your needs.

Register for Health Literacy: A Start, beginning Dec. 9, 2013.

[Photo credit: Dan Tantrum on Flickr]

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