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Cutting Through Jargon: When Words Matter in Healthcare

by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School

A few years ago, two aeronautical companies joined forces to collaborate on a new aircraft. At the first planning meeting, everyone agreed on ambitious goals and a rigorous schedule. But the conversation kept getting mired in misunderstanding. Finally, it was discovered that the two groups meant something different when they used the simple phrase, “the plane has been delivered.” One group understood it to mean the plane has been physically delivered to a control station. The other understood the exact same phrase to mean the plane has been delivered to the physical site and has passed all technical inspection. In addition to head scratching in the team, this affected how data were collected and categorized and affected project performance.

Communication failures created by jargon (and taken-for-granted assumptions embedded in the language of medicine) are especially plentiful and pernicious in healthcare. Some failures occur between caregivers and patients. The patient who walks away from an appointment clutching a piece of paper with the letters NAS scrawled on the bottom may have no idea that NAS means “no added salt” in her diet. The patient told to see a gastroenterologist for a particular condition may have no idea what an gastroenterologist does, much less the appropriate questions to ask.

In its March 18th issue, the Tufts Health Journal highlighted the problem of medical jargon in conversations with patients.
A dental student in a communications class repeatedly used the term “caries” to communicate the common dental affliction with a patient. The teacher reminded him. “Who uses the term ‘caries’ for ‘cavity’? No one. Only dentists.” To the reporter, she explained, the students “were so involved in their own field and their own learning that they had forgotten how people outside the field talk.”

Continue reading Amy's post over on the Health Leadership Forum.

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