Plain and simple

Say what? 4 ways to break down medical jargon for your patients

Osteopathic medical schools help future DOs establish clear and open lines of communication with patients.


Communication with patients is one the most critical elements of practicing osteopathic medicine. If patients don’t understand their diagnosis, their treatment plan or how to take their medications, their visit with a physician isn’t likely to lead to recovery or better health.

One easy way physicians can more effectively communicate with patients is to de-jargon their language by using common words and phrases instead of complex medical terms and acronyms.

Osteopathic medical schools across the country are recognizing this need by providing additional training in patient communication and interaction.

Making connections

Rebecca Moore, DO, teaches medical students at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM) in Stratford, New Jersey, that speaking with patients in plain language is a crucial skill they need to acquire.

“Students sometimes struggle with explaining medical concepts to patients in a way that does not seem too technical or too simple,” says Dr Moore. “In the mandatory standardized patient lab, we videotape second-year medical students explaining a procedure to a patient in terms they will understand and then we review the encounter to discuss how the student can improve their skills.”

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At the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in Downers Grove, Illinois, educator Frank R. Serrecchia, DO, advises first-year students to recall times when they themselves found medical jargon to be overwhelming.

“I remind students that most of them possess the same limited understanding of medical language as many of their future patients, and I encourage them to always remember those feelings of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety,” he says.

4 ways to explain medical jargon

After learning how to effectively explain medical concepts to patients in medical school, good physicians will strive to continue honing this skill throughout their careers, Dr. Serrecchia notes.

“Deciphering medical jargon for patients is not the topic of one homework assignment or one specific course. It is a lifelong process that must be adapted to every patient encounter,” he says.

Try the following to reduce your use of medical jargon with patients:

  1. Practice, practice, practice. “We often encourage medical students to practice explaining a medical procedure, such a colonoscopy, to a family member to see if they understand,” says Dr. Moore.
  2. Have patients repeat instructions back to you. If they do not understand your instructions, repeat them using slightly less technical terminology.
  3. Use analogies that are more easily understood and identified by the patient. “When explaining otitis media to a 9-year-old boy, you may liken the infected serous fluid in his ear to stagnant water in his aquarium when it hasn’t been cleaned,” says Dr. Serrecchia.
  4. Draw a picture if patients need to visualize what you are explaining.


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