logoThe People's Perspective on Medicine

Secret Language Divides Doctors And Patients

Secret Language Divides Doctors And Patients

Once upon a time anyone who wanted to be a doctor had to study Latin. It was the language of learning. It also created a mystique that patients could not penetrate.

It’s been decades since Latin was required for pre-meds. After all, it’s a dead language. So why do doctors cling to big words derived from Latin and Greek?

Secret societies have ways of excluding outsiders. Rituals, codes and passwords are ways to do this. Special uniforms also create these boundaries.

Physicians have been especially good at such tactics. The white coat and stethoscope immediately signal who’s in charge. And the special language doctors use when making a diagnosis or writing a prescription helps reinforce the message.

But big words don’t improve communication with colleagues or patients. Does it help to refer to a heart attack as a myocardial infarction or a stroke as a cerebrovascular accident?

Look up drug side effects in the Physicians’ Desk Reference and you will discover words like tinnitus (ringing in the ears), syncope (fainting), dyspnea (shortness of breath), epistaxis (nosebleed) and anosmia (loss of smell).
Is there any reason to use these fancy words, even when speaking with other doctors? It’s not like epistaxis is any shorter or more descriptive than nosebleed.

Patients can become alarmed when confronted with medical jargon. The doctor who writes a prescription for one tablet every six hours for urticaria and pruritis may frighten a patient into thinking he has something serious when in truth it’s just itchy hives.

If it were just a question of doctors showing off, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. But when doctors use Latin codes in their prescriptions, not only does it create confusion for the patient, it can also lead to pharmacy errors.

Common expressions like ac (before meals), po (by mouth), hs (at bedtime), prn (as needed), and qid (four times a day) seem streamlined, but may provide inadequate information. Does “qid” mean you should get up in the middle of the night to take that fourth dose? For some antibiotics, that is essential. For other medicines, it isn’t necessary.

Though doctors sometimes claim that they don’t have time to write everything out, pharmacists disagree. If the pharmacist has to call the doctor for clarification, the doctor will waste precious time explaining what the prescription says.

The most respected pharmacology text in the world says, “Abbreviations should be avoided since their use frequently results in error…the directions to the patient should always be written in English. The use of Latin abbreviations serves no useful purpose.” Despite this warning, many doctors find it hard to break this bad habit.

Take a look at your next prescription. Unless it is printed clearly in plain English, it could be misinterpreted. Don’t accept any prescription you can’t read and understand yourself. Make a photocopy so you can verify your prescription is filled correctly.

Health professionals must communicate clearly. Lives depend on it. Latin codes and big words create confusion instead of clarity and should be avoided.

Rate this article
3.8- 6 ratings
About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.