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Idioms, Cliches, And Jargon: Health Educational Materials Are Too Complicated To Understand

Doctor-Patient Communication
A new study shows that doctors have less empathy for obese and overweight patients, possibly affecting patients willingness to take medical advice. Creative Commons - credit Caro

For many people, online research is one way to learn about possible health problems, symptoms, and treatments. And to help in that search, medical associations in many specialties post materials online to help educate patients. Unfortunately, a new study has found that most of those materials are more of a hindrance than a help.

The study, published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that readability assessments of materials found on the websites of all 16 medical specialties said they were too complex. The American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that all medical materials aimed at patients be written at a fourth- to sixth-grade reading level in order to be as comprehensible as possible. The materials assessed were far above that recommended level, the study says.

In fact, some materials fell in the reading range of ninth grade to sophomore year of college, even above the average American's reading level at seventh to eighth grade, according to Reuters.

"We might not be cognizant of the population reading our articles, who might need something more simple," study co-author Nitin Agarwal told Reuters.

Lisa Gualtieri, who studies health communication at Tufts University and sometimes acts as a patient advocate, told Reuters that the problem seems to be an overuse of medical jargon. Instead of meeting the patients at their level, the doctors who write these materials tend to revert back to the language they're accustomed to using.

There's also an overabundance of clichés in some of the materials, Agarwal said, which are incomprehensible even in different regions of the U.S., much less to patients who may be immigrants or non-native English speakers.

Study senior author Charles Prestigiacomo told Reuters that sometimes the best way to communicate health information to patients is by using analogies to describe a medical problem. But more importantly, according to Agarwal, "Concise and to the point is the way to go."

"Website revisions may be warranted to increase the level and quality of these patient resources to effectively reach a broader population," the researchers wrote. "One simple adjustment is to write more clearly, which may increase comprehension regardless of the reader's health literacy capabilities." The authors also recommend the use of visual materials like pictures and videos to supplement written materials. 

 

Source: Agarwal N, Hansberry DR, Sabourin V, et al. A Comparative Analysis of the Quality of Patient Education Materials From Medical Specialties. JAMA. 2013.

 

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