Anatomy of Words: Medical Terms


text I: Marker, pencil, liquid correction fluid on paper


text II: Marker, pencil, liquid correction fluid on paper


text III: Marker on paper

Although most of the literature points to organizational culture as being key to the integration of new practices, some research argues that even if healthcare workers decide to adopt plain language, the worker may not have the ability to identify plain language terms and use them effectively (Dahm, 2011; Wyrley-Birch, 2010). According to Wyrley-Birch (2010), the challenge is that medical language is so second nature for healthcare workers, that “if asked to explain concepts, actions, or terminology within their field of practice they may struggle to do so” (p. 211). Dahm (2011) found that none of the international medical students she studied were aware that patients and healthcare professionals view medical terms differently.  Further, when they were asked to clarify medical terms, the students did not have the English skills needed to communicate effectively with their patients (p. 196).

So if healthcare workers are not able to translate their medical terminologies or are simply not aware of differences in language levels, how receptive and skilled can they be with delivering clear health information to their patients? The implication is that plain language training programs may need to focus more on assessing and evaluating the language skills of healthcare workers (Kripalani et al., 2006; Davis et al., 2002; Dahm, 2011); a departure in thinking from the popular approach that espouses healthcare workers should test patients for their comprehension of health information (Rudd & Keller, 2009; Toofany, 2007; Andrulis et al., 2007).

Backbone explores how the words we choose form the foundation of our relationships. Alternating strips of plain language and medical terms, interspersed with bits of examination gown material and “x-ray” images, are joined together to form a spine-shaped suspended object. A single thread connects the words and articles used by doctor and patient, reminding us of both the fragility and strength of human communication.

In text I, the pencilled words in the shadow suggest a medical student’s initial use of medical terminology. As their use of medical terms becomes second nature, the words are shown in permanent marker. When used without explanation with patients, these same words form a barrier as demonstrated by the vertical white bars. The use of correction fluid for the bars shows that the words detract both from the doctor’s ability to provide the patient with the expected standards of care and the patient’s ability to make informed decisions.

text II refers to when healthcare providers use medical jargon and abbreviations to talk about medical conditions in front of patients and family without their fully understanding what is being said and its significance (Van Servellen, 2009, p. 220). The tower of medical abbreviations suggests the power of information control. Within the tower though, there are structural weaknesses, as shown by the work’s edited and pencilled text.

The small piece, text III reminds us how easy and effective it can be to use simple words that everyone, even children, can understand. It provides contrast to the larger jargon-laden and “flawed” content in text I, text II.


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