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October 24, 2005
9:00:00 AM - 10:30:00 AM
Room C306
Patients and Jargon: Are We Speaking the Same Language?
Aaron M. Fields, M.D., Kirk H. Shelley, M.D., Ph.D., Craig Freiberg, M.D.
Department of Anesthesiology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, United States

Throughout their training, medical professionals are discouraged from using jargon when speaking with patients. Webster's dictionary defines jargon as “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” It is unclear however how much of the terminology used by medical professionals is part of the average patient's lexicon and how much is truly unintelligible to that population.

A PubMed search using the terms “jargon” and “patient” revealed a single study published in 1977 in which a nurse verbally asked patients about their understanding of certain words.1 No study using written or blinded questionnaires could be found.

It would be useful for healthcare practitioners to know what phrases they can safely use and be reasonably certain that the average patient would understand.


After HIC approval, 100 ambulatory patients, between the ages of 18 and 80 whose first language was English were given a questionnaire. This questionnaire asked patients to write their understanding of ten frequently used terms commonly used during the preoperative interview. The ten terms were as follows: IV, GERD or reflux, intubate, general anesthesia, regional or local anesthesia, NPO, pulse ox, EKG, hypertension, and MI. Three additional demographic questions were then asked regarding their first language, their age, and their highest level of education. Their written answers were then quantified and statistically analyzed.


Of the ten terms given, 4 had a greater than 80% correct response rate: EKG, IV, general anesthesia, and local or regional anesthesia with correct response rates of 91.4%, 88.6%, 81.4%, and 81.4% respectively. The terms with the poorest understanding were NPO (28.6%), MI (34.3%), and Pulse Ox (40%). The rest of the terms with their correct response rates were as follows: GERD 68.3%, hypertension 65.7%, and intubate 60%.


Anesthetic providers can feel confident in using the terms EKG, IV, regional, and general anesthesia. Other commonly used terms are poorly understood by the average patient and should be further explained.


Cosper B. How well do patients understand hospital jargon? Am J Nurs. 1977 Dec;77(12):1932-4.[figure1]

Anesthesiology 2005; 103: A611
Figure 1