Back to Resources

The doctor ordered what? How medical terms get lost in translation.

Mike Pitt, M.D.

Mike Pitt, M.D.

Co-founder, CEO

Dr. Pitt is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and an award-winning educator

This blog article summarizes a study conducted by Q-rounds cofounder Michael Pitt, MD, and a team of researchers. 

This research has been featured in:  Forbes, NBC, U.S. News & World Report, Daily Mail, Yahoo

Medical terms are frequently misunderstood, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open  lead by Q-rounds cofounder Pitt and colleagues. In this study, 215 adults at the Minnesota State Fair participated in a survey that tested their knowledge of common phrases used by clinicians in a medical setting. 

Researchers found that people outside of the healthcare industry rarely understood terms and phrases commonly used by doctors with patients. This confusion is concerning, since it can lead to people not understanding their health status or medical condition. 

“It’s always bothered me that you could be the smartest doctor in the world, but if you speak in a way that your patients don’t understand, you’re useless,” Pitt said. 

We’ve outlined some of the most common misunderstandings identified in the study here.

Negative and Positive

Negative and positive have different meanings in a medical context than they do in everyday use. For example, 21% of respondents didn’t understand that positive lymph nodes in the context of cancer, was bad news, since positive news is generally considered good news in everyday use. And while 86% of survey participants understood, “Your blood culture was negative,” 96% of survey participants understood the same information without the word negative, “You do not have an infection in your blood.”

Impressive is unwanted; unremarkable is good

Other words that mean one thing in everyday use but a different thing in medicine were also confusing. Only 20% of survey participants understood that, “The findings on the x-ray were quite impressive,” meant bad news, since impressive typically means something is good. Likewise, only 79% of survey participants understood that “Your chest x-ray was unremarkable,” meant good news, since people usually want to be considered remarkable. And only 2% of respondents understood that an occult infection meant a hidden infection, since occult usually means cursed—which was the most common wrong interpretation reported by survey participants.

NPO vs. nothing by mouth

The use of the acronym NPO was deeply confusing. Only 11% of survey participants understood being NPO at 8 a.m., but 75% correctly understood the phrase, “Have nothing by mouth after 4 p.m.” The study authors agreed that with 1-out-of-4 people still not understanding the seemingly more clear phrasing, an argument could be made for communicating with even more clarity, such as, “You should have nothing to eat or drink after 4 p.m.”

Rounding it up

Pitt and colleagues’ study showed that not only are several common medical terms misunderstood by the public, they’re often interpreted to mean the exact opposite of what is intended. This indicates a need for providers to take time and care when communicating with patients.

Q-rounds aims to help address people’s confusion with medical terms by uniting care teams, patients and their families in the same room for rounds. It gets everyone present at rounds, so families are able to attend virtually or in-person and hear directly from the doctor, while nurses can advocate for better patient understanding. 

Interested in learning more? Read the full study or see how Q-rounds can help.