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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Understanding the Language of Medicine

June 23, 2014

Healthy Lifestyle
Your Doctor and You
Understanding the Language of Medicine
Understanding the Language of Medicine
Learn how you and your doctor can do a better job talking to one another.
Harvard Medical School

Harvard Medical School

When your mechanic tells you there's something wrong with your car's shift differential, you may have no idea what he's talking about. And as long as he fixes the problem, it really doesn't matter that you don't know how he did it. But if you leave your doctor's office confused about your medical condition and what you're supposed to do to treat it, that does matter. Unlike your mechanic, your doctor can't "fix" you without your help.

Have you ever had trouble understanding your doctor? You're not alone. Research shows that doctors and patients don't do a very good job of communicating. A report from the Institute of Medicine, an advisory body to the U.S. government, says that about 90 million people have a hard time understanding health information. This confusion cuts across age, race, income and educational level. The result is that people aren't following their doctor's instructions properly and are misreading prescription drug labels.

What's the Problem?

It's not an easy problem to fix, but you, the patient, are bound to play an important role. Doctors are crunched for time, making it hard for them to teach everything you need to know. Then there's "doc speak," the language doctors use that speakers of plain English (like you) often can't understand.

What's your role? You need to ask questions — as many as it takes — until you understand your condition and its treatment.

It won't be easy. You may feel intimidated or reluctant to admit you don't understand what the doctor is saying. But you need to get past the fear. Your doctor is your health partner. The two of you, working together, can address your problem and figure out the best way to treat it.

Three Questions

Easier said than done, right? Maybe it would help if you had some tools. Here are three questions to ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist, courtesy of AskMe3, a site that tries to help patients get clear information from their health team:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

Seems simple. Will it really work? Could you possibly leave your doctor's office understanding more about your condition by getting answers to only three questions? Let's listen in on a patient as she asks her doctor these very questions...

Mrs. Question
          Doctor, what is my main problem?

Doctor Answer
          You have diabetes.

Mrs. Question
          What do I need to do?

Doctor Answer
          You need to exercise and eat right and take the medicine I'm going
          to prescribe for you.

Mrs. Question
          Why is it important for me to do this?

Doctor Answer
          If you don't, your condition will get worse. Diabetes is very serious. It
          can lead to blindness, kidney damage, loss of a foot, and even to early

Wow. That's pretty straight talking, especially from a doctor!

Now imagine that this patient does not ask the questions. Pretend that she leaves her doctor's office confused about her condition and unclear about how important it is for her to follow her doctor's recommendations. She might go home and ignore the advice to exercise and eat a healthier diet. She might decide not to get her prescription filled — or maybe she fills it, but doesn't feel any different taking the medication so she stops taking it. This is bad news all around, and she doesn't even know it.

More Help

These three questions work outside the doctor's office, too. Going for a test or procedure? Need a new medication? Talking to a nurse on the phone? Use the questions.

If you're still confused, don't feel bad. Medicine is a tough subject and it changes every day. Ask again if you have to, and insist on getting answers that you understand. If doing this on your own sounds hard, bring a trusted family member or friend.

Believe it or not, your doctor wants you to understand what's going on. It makes her job easier — and your understanding will keep you healthier.

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health literacy,diabetes,exercise,medication
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