One of the most frequent complaints I hear from medical consumers is that they do not understand what their doctors and other medical professionals are telling them. No matter how intelligent the patient may be, too often, a physician or technician uses words or medical jargon that the average person does not know. And, in many cases, the patient is either afraid to ask for a clearer, more understandable explanation or is so overwhelmed by their diagnosis or suggested treatment to fully grasp what is being said.

Compounding all this is the fact that medical professionals have their own language, often dubbed “medicalese,” which they use with one another, but often also use with their patients. For example, a new cardiology patient may not understand when the doctor tells him he may have had a myocardial infarction, instead of simply saying heart attack. That same patient may be told he needs “cabbage” surgery rather than saying open heart or “coronary bypass surgery.” A woman recently complained that her doctor referred her to an oncologist (a cancer specialist), never mentioning the word cancer.

Frankly, there is no excuse for this type of miscommunication between medical professionals and their patients. However, the onus falls on you to make sure you get the most accurate and understandable information. Here are some actions you can take to make sure you fully understand what you are being told by any practitioner.

Ask to make it simple. Most medical professionals are busy. They sometimes see dozens of patients each day, so they may spend a very limited amount of time with each person. As a result, they often start speaking to you in shorthand or use confusing medical terminology you don’t know. But you can control this. First, stop the doctor when you hear a word you don’t know. Ask for a clearer, simpler, explanation. Ask him to write vital information down for you, like the name of a drug he is prescribing and what it does or is for. Explain back to the doctor what you believe he told you so that you are both on the same page.

Don’t be intimidated. Many of us are afraid to ask doctors or technicians questions. You may be intimidated by their professional demeanor or language. Don’t be. You have every right to ask questions. You are the customer, and your providers have an obligation to treat you with respect, which includes explaining things clearly. My mother always called her doctors by their first name and insisted she be called Mrs. Inlander. That shifted the dynamics of the relationship and she rarely found herself not understanding what was happening.

Educate yourself. The more you know about your conditions or medical status, the better your communication will be with medical providers. Look up your conditions online. Talk to your pharmacist about the drugs you are taking and their potential interactions with each other. Join support groups that bring together people with similar conditions or illnesses. Groups such as those sponsored by the American Heart Association or American Cancer Society can help you better understand your condition and options available.

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