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Medical Terms Can Be Confusing for Patients. Here’s How You Can Help

Doctors go to school for years to understand the complex world of medicine, and nurses also have extensive training in both practical skills and medical terminology. When most people think about their symptoms, though, it’s in simpler terms: their stomach hurts, or they have a headache. People who are scared and in pain can easily […]

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Woman Talking To The Sick Patient

Doctors go to school for years to understand the complex world of medicine, and nurses also have extensive training in both practical skills and medical terminology. When most people think about their symptoms, though, it’s in simpler terms: their stomach hurts, or they have a headache.

People who are scared and in pain can easily become overwhelmed by medical terms. They might not understand what you’re saying and have trouble following medical recommendations. Regardless of your nursing specialty, communication is one of the most important skills you can develop.

In some ways, you have to act as “translator” and help people understand the medical terms being used to describe their condition. Here are some tips for improving communication for better understanding.

Patient Education

If you’re like most nurses, you’re always busy. You might have a full patient roster in addition to other duties. It can be difficult to take the time and fully explain the information you’re giving patients. However, it’s very important to take patient education seriously and to gauge understanding before you move on to your next task.

It’s pretty common for nurses to ask patients if they have any questions. But unfortunately, this isn’t always going to tell you whether or not they understand the information you’ve provided. The patient or family member might not know what questions to ask, or they might just be totally overwhelmed.

Don’t assume that if they don’t have any questions, they’ve understood everything you’ve told them. Some nurses use the technique of gently asking the patient to repeat information back to them to make sure they’ve understood it. It’s important to ask in such a way that doesn’t put the patient on the spot, but increases understanding.

Tips on How to Explain Medical Terminology to Patients

How you should explain medical terms to patients might vary depending on the situation and their overall ability to understand these terms. Some patients might be more familiar with them, while others may have no knowledge or may be learning English as a second language. If necessary, it’s important to get a translator to help you so that all your patients have the information they need.

First, think about the terms that might be misunderstood. Are there prefixes or suffixes you could explain to increase their overall understanding? Are there interchangeable terms that might “feel” different or mean the same thing?

Unfortunately, you have to get in the habit of “feeling out” the situation and figuring out how to help any given patient understand the information you’re providing. If one approach isn’t working, try explaining in simpler terms, or even create notes or a reference sheet for them.

Other Important Tips for Patient Communication 

It can feel overwhelming and frustrating when a patient doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Practice is important for getting comfortable with explaining different conditions and procedures to different kinds of people. Ask your family and friends if you can explain a medical procedure to them and see if they understand you.

Again, asking patients to repeat information or instructions back to you is a good way to gauge understanding. Just be patient and kind and try not to make them feel overwhelmed. If they don’t understand, adjust your words and approach and try again.

Some patients even prefer a visual representation of their symptoms. Or, you could try using analogies to increase understanding. There’s no one “right” way to help patients understand since everyone has different learning styles!


Above All, Be Patient

It can be challenging when someone doesn’t understand a term that’s so familiar to you and feels so simple. But patience is an important skill for nurses in every stage of their careers. Put yourself in their shoes and think about what you’d want from a nurse in the same situation. Empathy is key for creating those all-important connections and increasing patient understanding. Remember, the more you practice, the easier it will get. At first, you might be used to just using the terms you used in school. But as you get familiar with the words patients use to describe what they’re going through, it will get more intuitive.

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