Pasadena City College, Home of the PCC Lancers

WAC/Health Sciences

Patient-Friendly Language

Medical language can be intimidating, and common people do not often feel comfortable asking for clarification from health professionals.  Your main purpose in speaking to a patient is to communicate clearly and effectively in language that they can understand.  Your secondarly purpose is to comfort the patient and give him or her confidence in their medical treatment.  You can do this through using positive words and a positive, but not unrealistic, tone of voice.

Here are a few hints for good caregiver-patient communication:

Talk to the patient directly.  Always look at and speak to the patient when discussing their care.  Do not speak to their spouse, parent, or other family members in the room and ignore the patient.  This makes patients feel powerless and trivialized.  If you patient is a very small child, you will most likely address questions about their care to their parent, but make sure that you also speak in age-appropriate ways to the child.  For instance, you might say to a four year old child, “Now I’m going to use my shiny mirror to look inside your mouth.  Can you open wide for me, please?”  Children deserve the same respect as adults, and will be far more complaint and trusting if they are also treated with respect.

Translate medical jargon into everyday English.   You have to judge each patient's knowledge, background, and vocabulary, but generally, it is important to use medical terminology but then translate it into everyday English, using analogies when it is helpful.

Give complete directions.  You may do the same procedure every day, but for the patient, it may be their first time.  So be careful and take enough time to give complete directions and information. For example, if they need to drink barium for a procedure, you should tell them about all the aftereffects.  Not only do they have to drink a lot of water, but their stool will change color.  Assuring them that this is normal will reduce their anxiety and prevent an unnecessary return visit. 

Avoid nicknames.   In American culture, giving someone a nickname is usually the job of family and close friends.  Even if you come to develop a real rapport with a patient, do not use nicknames, even if they seem to you to be terms of affection.  Most Americans do not like to be called “Pops,” “Honey,” or “Sweetie.”  They often feel that this is your attempt to cover up the fact that you do not remember their name.

Avoid inappropriate laughter or jokes.:  Humor can be the best medicine, but it can also be the worst.  Be extremely careful about making jokes or laughing at a situation that the patient might not find funny.  Health care providers who come from cultures where people laugh when they are embarrassed should be especially mindful about such laughter.

Explain when you are leaving the room. Often busy health care providers will walk in and out of an exam room in the middle of examining a patient.  They might realize they forgot a supply or a tray is not properly prepared, so they leave to get the needed equipment, intending to be back in just a minute.  This is very upsetting to some patients, who do not know why you left or when you will return, and feel that they are being ignored.  Try to plan wisely so that you will not have to leave a room in the middle of a session with a patient, and if you must leave the room, make sure that you explain where you are going and when you will return.  For instance, you might say, “I am going to step into the other room while the x-ray is being taken.  You can see me through the window.”

Avoid referring to the patient as a disease.   No one wants to be known as “the gallbladder in Room 3.”  Don’t get into the bad habit of identifying people as their disease or problem.  Patients will overhear you, and it makes them feel like they are in a factory.

Do not speak more slowly or loudly to a non-native speaker.  If someone doesn’t understand English, it won’t help them for you to speak louder.  Stretching out your words also merely confuses them:  “Heelloo, Missuss SSMMMIITTHH  HOOOW  ARE YOUUUUUU TODAYYYYYYY?”  is even more difficult for someone with few English words to understand than if you has said it normally.  Speak simply and clearly, and find a translator when necessary.

Give non-native speakers an opportunity to ask questions.  If you are working with a patient who has limited English skills, tell them that you want them to stop you to ask questions if they do not understand.  Patients are often afraid to interrupt, and you need to give them "permission" to do so.