Jargon Confuses Patients

Part of the training of dentists and other health care professionals includes learning many unusual and technical terms. This new vocabulary, though useful and precise within the profession, is merely confusing jargon to those outside of it. Dentists as well as other doctors, nurses, and technical staff should use words that are clear, accurate, and commonplace.

There are two primary reasons why dentists and other professionals sometimes use jargon when talking to their patients. The first, and most common, is simply due to habit. Jargon is like professional shorthand and is how dentists and other doctors first think about treating a patient. There is a great temptation to just say what you are thinking to a patient, instead of translating it into something he or she will understand. The other, and perhaps “darker” reason is less common. I believe that it was Emerson who wrote, “Knowledge is power”, and having specialized knowledge can make some people feel superior to others. You may remember Alec Baldwin’s character in the movie “Malice” where he plays an egotistical surgeon who says, “I am God”. While this is an exaggeration, it does illustrate a tendency that must be avoided when treating patients. Simply put, the use of jargon is condescending to patients and puts up a barrier that makes successful treatment difficult.

Dentists are sometimes guilty of using either dental or medical jargon without even realizing it. Common dental words such as restoration (filling), dentition (set of teeth), occlusion (how the teeth come together) and medical words like hyperemia (increased blood flow), osseous (bone), and anticoagulant (blood thinner) are examples of jargon that should be avoided. One goal of a good dentist-patient relationship should be clear communication that puts the patient at ease.

Jargon can be looked at as a vehicle of both inclusion and exclusion. It is inclusive to those with similar training or experience, and exclusive to everyone else. There is, of course, jargon in every industry, but when it is used to describe something as intimate and important as a person’s health and treatment, it can evoke fear and confusion. For this reason, dentists and other health professionals should make a special effort to avoid jargon when talking to their patients.