Intended for healthcare professionals


Doctors must avoid jargon when talking to patients, royal college says

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 18 June 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g4131
  1. Abi Rimmer
  1. 1BMJ Careers

Doctors should speak slowly and avoid using jargon with their patients, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has said.1

A report by the college said that doctors often used words that were unfamiliar to patients or that patients did not fully understand. “Doctors may use familiar words in unfamiliar ways,” it said. “For example, when health practitioners use the term ‘chronic’ they frequently mean ‘persistent,’ whereas a common alternative understanding of the word is to mean ‘severe.’”

The report said, “Doctors can unintentionally use words that are unfamiliar to their patients, without realising that the meaning is not clear. Some concepts familiar and obvious to doctors may be alien to patients.” The RCGP said that doctors should speak slowly, avoid jargon, and repeat points to help improve patients’ understanding. “Doctors should first establish what the patient knows and understands before launching into a discussion that begins at a level either too complex or too simple for the patient,” the report added.

Research led by Gillian Rowlands of Kings College London that was highlighted in the RCGP report found that 43% of England’s working age population struggled to understand health information that contained only text. The patients who faced the most difficulties were “older people, black and ethnic minority groups, those with low qualifications, those without English as a first language, those with low job status and those in the poverty trap,” the research found.

The report said that poor skills in understanding and using health information could leave patients at a higher risk of emergency admission to hospital and of serious health conditions. One GP, the report noted, said that a patient who had been referred for a chest x ray did not have it done, having failed to find the department because its sign read “Radiology” and he was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Commenting on the report, Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the RCGP, said, “Too often, our healthcare environments fail to recognise the needs of people with different levels of understanding about their health, meaning that patients are failing to receive the right care at the right time.”

She added, “We know that low health literacy affects all areas of health and healthcare, which is why we want to encourage GPs and the wider NHS to ensure that they are communicating complex information in a clear and manageable way. We look forward to working with NHS England to help shape a health system that is truly accessible to all.”