When a clinician says, “We need to draw some blood,” there likely is no need for crayons. When hearing about lab tests, it can be good news if results are “unremarkable.” But if the test comes back “positive,” then you might have cause for concern.
Health care has its own language. That includes homonyms (words pronounced and spelled the same way, but with different meanings) and jargon (defined by Wikipedia as “language used in a particular context that may not be well understood outside it.”)
You can start to improve understanding by recognizing when you are using homonyms, jargon, and other confusing words and terms. Here are some clues of possible problems:
- Squiggly red lines. Pay attention to words that your computer identifies as misspellings. On mine, these are underlined with squiggly red lines. Sometimes these words are spelled correctly but rare enough that built-in dictionaries do not recognize them. Such squiggles can be a clue that your word is jargon.
- Know your audience. Are readers familiar with your key terms? For example, do they know that “screen” can refer to diagnostic tests? Or that “cover” might mean a health plan pays for certain services? Edit with your readers in mind. When you question whether a word is jargon, it probably is. If so, clearly define that term, or delete it.
- Acronyms. These are new terms made up from initial letters in a string of words, such as BP for “blood pressure.” While not exactly jargon, acronyms can be unfamiliar and confusing. One way to recognize acronyms is by noticing terms in all capital letters.
- Quizzical looks. When you speak, pay attention to how others react. Do they look quizzical, stare blankly, or otherwise show signs of confusion? If so, you may be using words and terms others do not know. As always, choose words that increase understanding rather than create confusion.
More ways to learn:
- “Talking About Jargon (HLOL #94).” Podcast interview with Dr. Dean Schillinger. At http://www.healthliteracyoutloud.com/2013/04/09/talking-about-jargon-hlol-94/
- Osborne H, 2011. Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition. Jones & Bartlett Learning. Includes the chapter, “Jargon, Acronyms, and Other Troublesome Words.” Available in print and e-book at most online bookstores, including Amazon.
- WikiPedia. “Jargon,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jargon.