Avoid the Jargon

The 10th most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster online in 2014 was a medical term. Look-ups of “morbidity” spiked in September, Merriam-Webster said, because of news about the first person to die of Ebola in the United States — and presumably, because a lot of people don’t know what the word means.

That’s why the Plain Language Medical Dictionary suggests using “diseased,” “sick,” or “ill” instead of “morbidity.” The dictionary tool, a project of the University of Michigan Taubman Health Sciences Library, suggests sensible alternatives to both medical and nonmedical words you might often use in your practice. You can select from a drop-down list of words to get a “plain language translation.”

Granted, “morbidity” is not a word you typically use in the exam room. But a couple of studies from across the pond suggest that even common medical words often elude real comprehension. A study of orthopedic terminology revealed a poor understanding of “fracture” and “sprain.” Another study showed that patients often confuse the terms “heart attack,” “heart failure,” and “cardiac arrest.”

The Plain Language Medical Dictionary offers “break” for “fracture” and “muscle injury” or “muscle tear” for “sprain.” With more complicated terms like “heart attack,” a brief explanation may be in order.

For nonmedical words, the dictionary gives conversational words to replace more bookish-sounding ones. For example, words like “help,” “about,” and “more,” are no less clear — and easier for your listener to absorb — than “assist,” “approximately,” and “additional.” 


  • Bagley CHM, Hunter AR, Bacarese-Hamilton IA.  Patients' misunderstanding of common orthopaedic terminology: the need for clarity. Ann R Coll Surg Engl. Jul 2011;93(5):401-404.
  • Blackman, J, Sahebjalal M. Patient understanding of frequently used caridology terminology. Br J Cardiol. March 2014;21:39. March 2014.    

Published Jan. 13, 2015

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Last Updated On

June 23, 2016

Originally Published On

January 13, 2015