Have you ever noticed how important it is for doctors to use big words when discussing health issues. Medical terminology is taught in school, but doctors seem to forget that the average patient hasn’t taken these courses. Early in my practice I remember taking almost 45 minutes to explain in detail a patient’s health problems. I was very impressed with my explanation and proudly asked at its conclusion if there were any questions. The patient told me he only had one question. I was elated and confidently asked, “what is your question?” The patient responded, “can you help me?” After my ego fully deflated, I realized my lengthy explanation did nothing more than waste my patient’s time. My attempt to sound intelligent did nothing more than prove a lack of communication skill on my part. Within just a few minutes, I was able to re-explain the problem more clearly and the effectiveness of the treatment I would be performing. The patient was elated. I never made that mistake again.
This encounter made me think about health care and the terminology used when dealing with patients. I’m convinced the medical language requiring a minimum of 5 syllables when dealing with diagnosis was invented to accentuate the intelligence of the physician while disguising the limitations within our profession. I’ll bet you’d like some proof!
IDIOPATHIC (a good 5 syllable word) means, “I don’t know the cause.” Idiopathic scoliosis is an example of a diagnosis that means in “English”, curvature of the spine with an unknown cause. Idiopathic hypertension is high blood pressure with an unknown cause. Sounds professional and readily accepted by the patient because they find it difficult to believe that a doctor with years of study is providing a diagnosis that means “I don’t know why?”
IATROGENIC (another good 5 syllable word) means, “illness or condition caused by a doctor’s examination or treatment.” Bet you’d be surprised to find out that the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States is iatrogenic. This information doesn’t make the headline news everyday! This probably motivated Dr. Robert Mendelsohn M.D. to write the book entitled, “How To Raise A Healthy Child In Spite Of Your Doctor.”
SEBORRHOEIC KERATOSIS (9 syllables in 2 words) These 9 syllables could be reduced to 1. How about we simply say, “warts.” Not only are we using up more oxygen than necessary, we are scaring people unnecessarily. I believe the 9 syllables are used to create more concern by the patient justifying medical (costly) treatment rather than simple home remedies such as grinding up an aspirin and covering the wart for 2-3 weeks. (Disclosure: Do NOT do this without having a licensed healthcare professional first state it is safe and appropriate to do so.) Yes, this is an actual method to reduce warts and a whole lot less costly!
DIFFERENTIAL DIAGNOSIS (only 8 syllables in 2 words) This translates to mean, “my best educated guesses.” Diagnosis sounds authoritative and based on science. Many different conditions have similar presentations. Diagnosis accuracy can vary greatly. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2013 demonstrating 50 % accuracy in simple cases and 7% accuracy in complicated cases. (JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(21):1952-1958. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.10081.) One may question how often a coin is used to determine a diagnosis since the coin offers a similar 50% chance of heads or tails.
LFT’S (in lieu of syllables, acronyms also create scholarly appearances) These letters represent Liver Function Tests. These are tests that are commonly ordered since so many people take cholesterol lowering medication. Why are they important? Doctors want to make sure they aren’t damaging your liver with their recommended prescriptions. Should you be concerned? Any time blood is needed for evaluation every 3-6 months to verify the treatment isn’t creating more harm than good, a red flag should be waved. Does the science justify the risk/benefit analysis? Certainly not across the entire population currently taking these medications. How many people do you think are aware that these blood tests are ordered to measure potential liver damage caused by the doctor’s recommendation?
The next time you go to your doctor, make certain you walk out of their office knowing the following:
What is my diagnosis? (in medical terms AND ENGLISH terms!)
What are my VARIOUS options? A doctor is required to provide the various options to address the diagnosis. Prescriptive medication is ONLY ONE OPTION. Ask them to provide ALL OPTIONS so you can make a better informed decision.
What are the POSSIBLE risks?
What is the range in time frame before the condition is corrected? (NOT MERELY STABILIZED)
What steps can you (the patient) take outside the doctor’s office to help facilitate the process?
Now that you have a better understanding of medical lingo, don’t be intimidated by the process. You have ALL THE POWER. Remember, we doctors are merely your employees. You can fire us if unsatisfied with our performance. I hope this provides a new perspective on medical terminology as well as the patient/doctor relationship. The more you understand the better chance for a better outcome.