(Reuters Health)—When patients misunderstand commonly used medical terms, communication and decision-making may suffer, U.K. researchers say.
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In a survey of London oral and maxillofacial surgery clinic patients, more than a third of participants did not know the meaning of such terms as benign or lesion and more than half could not define metastasis or lymph node, the study team reports online Dec. 1 in the British Dental Journal.1
Communication between patient and practitioner is essential, the researchers write, but it may not be happening as often as doctors think it is.
“As a result, ill-informed patients tend to neglect timely treatment which can lead to very bad – sometimes disastrous – outcomes,” says Dr. Sidney Eisig of Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine in New York, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“I’ve seen patients with premalignant lesions turn to cancer that otherwise might not have occurred had surgical treatment not been so delayed,” he tells Reuters Health in a phone interview.
Emma Hayes of King’s College Hospital, London, and her colleagues recruited 123 patients waiting for their appointments at the hospital’s outpatient clinic to anonymously answer questionnaires about the meanings of several medical terms. Participants also provided background information about themselves, including education level and whether English was their first language.
In a multiple-choice section of the questionnaire, they were asked to define blister, ulcer, malignant, lesion and benign. In a free-written answer section, they were also asked to describe in their own words the meanings of biopsy, tumor, lymph node, pre-malignant and metastasis.
Hayes’ team found that 90% of respondents correctly defined blister as a bubble of fluid under the skin. Ulcer came in at a distant second with just 70% choosing the appropriate definition as an open sore or break in the skin.
“The words blister and ulcer are frequently used in medical areas unrelated to dental care, which may explain why the two are the most recognized medical lexicon,” Eisig notes. “For example, a patient experienced foot or hand blisters in the past. A friend or family member once had a stomach ulcer.”
Forty-five percent of patients were able to define a biopsy as a test involving taking a sample, but 30% wrongly defined it as a test specifically for cancer.
Benign and metastasis were the least understood terms, with 33% of patients responding “Don’t know” for the meaning of benign and just 6% correctly defining metastasis as the spread of a cancer to other areas of the body. Many patients also seemed to mistake “metastasis” for other words, offering responses such as “foot bone” (metatarsal) or “breast condition, very painful” (mastitis).