Published in JAMA Network Open, University of Minnesota (U of M) Medical School researchers found there is often a disconnect between the medical language used by physicians and patient understanding. This mismatch in clinicians’ intent to speak plainly with the reality that they continue to use confusing terminology is known as jargon oblivion. Their findings suggest that several common phrases are misunderstood when used in a medical setting and can often be interpreted in the exact opposite way of what is intended.

“If a doctor’s communication with patients is not understood, their healthcare plan is meaningless,” says Michael Pitt, MD, an associate professor at the U of M Medical School and pediatric specialist with M Health Fairview. “With this study, we aim to highlight to medical providers, like ourselves, how many phrases we use with patients that are misunderstood.”

More than 200 adults were surveyed at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. Each participant was given 13 phrases they may hear during a doctor’s visit and asked what they felt it meant. The results showed:

  • While 96% of participants understood that negative cancer screening results meant they did not have cancer, only 67% correctly understood that having “positive” lymph nodes was bad news.
  • 21% of participants thought that the phrase “your tumor is progressing” was good news, likely because progress has a positive connotation.
  • 79% of participants thought that if their clinician said their x-ray was ‘impressive’ it was considered good news; ‘impressive’ typically means a doctor is worried about the results.
  • 2% of patients correctly understood what was meant by a physician being concerned about them having an ‘occult infection.’ This means the physician is worried about an infection that is hidden, but more people thought this meant the doctor was worried they had been cursed.

By being aware of the phrases that are often misunderstood, healthcare providers can broaden their definition of what they see as jargon and work to improve their communication with patients. The research team plans to continue to study strategies to identify and eliminate jargon with the goals of improving communication between patients and their healthcare providers.