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Drop the Jargon!

What Can Medical Translation Teach Us About this Stubborn Barrier to Communication

By John Widick | October 20 , 2020 | Medical Translation quality | 5 Min read

All of us have felt confused by jargon at some point, whether in a hospital, a law office, or when we read (or don’t read) an online user agreement. Specialized terminology, including medical jargon, is necessary to streamline communication between people already familiar with a topic, but these terms often do more harm than good when speaking to someone who lacks the same knowledge. Those of us who work in healthcare translation are often trying to prevent unfamiliar language from amplifying the anxiety a patient may already feel. Sensitivity to the effects of jargon is crucial for healthcare professionals. Some of the harm jargon can do when misapplied is obvious, whereas certain effects are so subtle you may not have noticed them. After reading about them, however, you will see them everywhere. As a healthcare translation service, we would like to share these five important points regarding how jargon prevents us from communicating effectively with patients.

It Leads to Confusion

Do you know the difference between medical translation and medical interpretation? Many people just use the term “translation” for everything, but medical translation refers to a written document, and interpretation is the immediate conversion of the spoken word into another language. A proactive translation service will make the distinction for you outright to assure you know exactly what you are paying for before any confusion has the chance to set in. Good medical translation services know that the general public finds these terms confusing, and get ahead of the problem.

Many medical professionals are proactive communicators as well, using analogies and clear descriptions of medical problems that make understanding easy for patients. These individuals, however, are often seen as having a natural gift for communication. It can be seen as a part of one’s personality, and so it is not always prioritized in training. The truth is that good communication can absolutely be taught, and dropping exclusivist jargon is a quantifiable way to enhance communication with patients.

It Creates Exclusivity

One study found a fascinating pattern among human beings who use jargon. It looked at the frequency of jargon usage among people with higher and lower perceived “status” in a respective group, and found that there was a significant increase in jargon among people with lower perceived status, and less jargon from people with higher status. It’s not hard to imagine the reasons for this. Lower people in an organization or exclusive social group may have more to prove in order to increase their status, and using more jargon may be an attempt to do so. Whatever the reason, jargon is certainly a gatekeeper to various professional or social groups, and may be used to demonstrate just how exclusive a community is. Certainly, some people do this intentionally, but even done on accident it can leave the person they are speaking to feeling excluded, as well as confused.

Acronyms: Obscure Terms Made More Obscure

To start, let’s clarify one point. It’s only an acronym if you can pronounce it like a word, like SCUBA or RADAR. If you say each letter, as in MD or RN, then it’s just an abbreviation. Both of these are common ways medical professionals use to shorten the process of documenting or searching for terms, and they do a good job at that.

You can imagine the dilemma when we come across them in a medical translation. Is there an equivalent term in the target language? Sometimes speakers of another language use their own abbreviation, or sometimes they even use the English language one. Clearly the people creating the medical translation need to be familiar with technical terms in both languages. If our audience is made up of patients, we recommend the original document be as free of abbreviations as possible.

There are several reasons why acronyms and abbreviations are particularly harmful in a dialogue with patients. First of all, they are short and sound like words, which makes them easy to miss in a sentence. Also, if you ever do an internet search of an abbreviation, you will find the same abbreviation used for multiple different terms or names. In general, abbreviations or acronyms take all the context away from terms that are already difficult, making them doubly exclusive.

Dropping Jargon Makes Medical Translations Better

Jargon is a special challenge for medical translation. One might think that a translator’s task of clarifying communication would naturally include eliminating jargon in the final result, but that is not always the case. In fact, knowing how to appropriately handle jargon is what sets medical and scientific translators apart. If a healthcare translation is destined for a healthcare audience, appropriate jargon needs to be preserved in the text. While translators don’t change the content of a document, if it is destined for patients we recommend the original be written in language that will be smoothly understood by a wide range of readers with varying healthcare literacy.

What to Do About It?

We’ve made the case that jargon is for experts and plain language is for the people they serve. The natural question to follow is, how do we change the way we communicate? In fact, it can be just as hard as learning a new language, especially when long-standing habits have become entrenched. One of the best ways to find out how to improve is to get feedback. An engaged audience will often ask questions that show their comprehension. Stay alert for confused body language, and do what you can to make sure your patients are comfortable so that they are more likely to tell you if they’re confused. For ideas on how to replace jargon, try the The Plain Language Medical Dictionary. Finally, put yourself in their shoes. We may not always correctly guess what others experience, or how well they understand us, but there’s no better place to start than with empathy.

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