It is generally agreed that the language of medicine was first Greek and then Latin. Today, in spite of doctor’s speaking to patients in their native tongue, the language of medicine might as well still be Greek. It is the rare lay person that knows their hippocampus from their gluteus maximus. And while most doctors don’t speak Greek or Latin, too often they use “doctor speak” for body parts, diseases, and treatments. This leads to a big gap between what the doctor knows and what the patient understands.
Doctors are not necessarily smarter than lay people; they just know and deal with things that are generally unfamiliar or uninteresting to people. If it is Escherichia coli causing infection in the bladder is of great interest to the doctor. The lay person only cares if it burns when they pee. To further disconnect the two, just add the name of the prescribed treatment drug to the conversation. It takes a doctor to figure out the cause of a problem, but it takes an interpreter to help the doctor translate
“doctor speak” into laymen terms.
Another reason – rarely discussed – causing disconnects between patient and doctor communications is payment. Doctors do not get paid for explaining things to patients. Sure, they care about their patients, but they get paid for diagnosing and treating their patients, not talking to them. When they submit their bills to insurers, and the federal government, there aren’t any billable codes for “explained vertigo diagnosis to patient for 10 minutes”. There is a billable code for “vertigo”.
In a foreign country speaking louder and slower doesn’t change the language discrepancy. Similarly, having a doctor say the same thing in “doctor speak” three times doesn’t make it more understandable. When it comes to one’s health, that lack of clear understanding can lead to poor health outcomes, unnecessary return visits and increased cost.
In spite of huge technology advances in medicine and elsewhere, doctors are still explaining things with “doctor speak” and no translator. Misunderstanding language in a foreign country may be only embarrassing or funny. Misunderstanding disease processes and treatments could be deadly. In a world where foreign languages can be translated with an app on a smartphone, isn’t it time “doctor speak” be translatable? The medical community needs to utilize modern technology, video, graphics, and animations to help patients better understand what ails them and how to fix it.