Health Trends

The Great Divide: Why Medicine Can Be Confusing

A nutrition student gives some reasoning as to why medicine is confusing.

Imagine this scenario:  Your doctor hands you some papers that you need to read and sign through.  The words are small, so you need to squint to see them.  The page just seems filled with words.  Eventually you reach the bottom where your signature is required.  How many non-medial people think to themselves “what the fuck did I just read?”

Now imagine this other scenario: you talk to your doctor after some blood work.  They talk about several problems, perhaps something with “triglycerides” or “hypertension.”  Not wanting to look stupid, you nod in agreement, despite the fact you have no idea what was just said.

These are issues real enough in medicine, that I am taking a class on how to write a document to the lay-person.  Whose fault is it that there is this breakdown in communication?  Is it your fault that you don’t understand the doctor?  Or is it perhaps the doctor’s fault for not knowing their audience?

Personally, I think it’s the latter.  The class I am taking that teaches nutrition students how to write for a lay-audience discussed that the average reading level in America is 8th grade.  Meaning that there are several people like me who can read a research article, understand what is going on in the study, and then report it back as a summary or as a point of evidence.  There are also several people that struggle with reading materials that are considered “basic.”

How can communication between medical professionals and patients be improved?  For starters, I think documents have more whitespace (the spacing around paragraphs), bigger font sizes, and definitions next to some key words.   Whitespace and larger font sizes improves readability, while definitions help people understand.  If you are unfamiliar with “triglycerides,” on a document, the paperwork can instead say “triglycerides (fat found in blood).”

Doctors and other medical professionals can also use more casual language when talking about health issues.  Instead of telling the patient they have “hypertension,” the doctor could tell them they have “high blood pressure.”  Not everyone understands medical jargon.  Simplifying the language used can help patients understand the issue and how to correct it.

In case you were curious, this blog post has a reading level of 8.9, meaning that someone who is almost a 9th grader most likely can understand this piece.  Some of the reasons it’s higher is I had to use several complicated words to explain my point.  I also have longer sentences with more than one idea, which raises the reading level.

Also, if you feel I am picking on the lay-person, keep in mind I am the lay-person in several topics.  There have been times when friends and family have talked about something outside of the food and nutrition realm and I have been like “huh?”

Any other ideas you guys have for improving the readability of documents?  Any advice a non-medical person can give to a soon-to-be medical professional to make documents easier to read?

By The Nutrition Punk

I am a dietitian living in Portland, Oregon. I write about a variety of nutrition and heath topics, with the goal of improving people's understanding of food and nutrition so they may be empowered against all the misinformation that is out there.

15 replies on “The Great Divide: Why Medicine Can Be Confusing”

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