The jargon-free glossary

close up of eyeglasses

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters 

Like any exclusive club, heart disease has its own complex jargon, understandable only by other members of the club, particularly by cardiac care experts – not patients!   If you need a translator, just click here to find my patient-friendly, jargon-free glossary of the most common acronyms/terms/abbreviations you’ll likely find around the cardiac ward.

Consider this example of a real life physician (a cardiac surgeon in Indiana) who is answering a patient’s online question on the website called HealthTap (a site that appears at first blush to be about medical Q&A, but is actually more like a matchmaking service between doctor-shopping patients and the doctors who want to woo them). 

The patient asks HealthTap:

“What caused my arm pain during my recent heart attack?”

And the cardiac surgeon replies to the patient (let me repeat that, because it’s critically important to our story) TO THE PATIENT:

“The pericardium is innervated by C3,4,5 (Phrenic nerve). There may be some neuronal connections to the intercostobrachial nerves.”

So my follow-up question to this cardiac surgeon would be something like:

“Are you frickety-frackin’ kidding me?”

A distressingly large number of people who have the letters M.D. after their names actually say these kinds of things out loud (or online) to those who have never been to medical school (a.k.a. “patients”).  See also: Medical Jargon: Do You Need a Translator?

And worse, even patient education materials made available to those needing to learn more about a specific medical condition can be so jargon-heavy that it makes such material virtually useless to the average patient. Online resources can be even more confusing.

That’s what New Jersey researchers led by Dr. Charles Prestigiacomo found when they used a number of readability scales to test materials published by 16 different medical specialty societies, specifically looking at how challenging these materials were to read.(1)

Easy readability is important, particularly for health messages, because their complexity can be an impossible barrier for those of us among the great unwashed who need this information. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly nine out of 10 adults have difficulty following routine medical advice, largely because it’s often incomprehensible unless you’ve been to med school.

NOTE from CAROLYN:  This entire patient-friendly, jargon-free glossary (all 9,200 words!) is now part of my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease  (Johns Hopkins University Press).  You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the JHUP code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


1. Charles Prestigiacomo, MD et al: “A Comparative Analysis of the Quality of Patient Education Materials From Medical Specialties.”  JAMA Internal Medicine. May 20, 2013.