The push for patient-friendly terminology

Communicating with patients shouldn’t mean settling for confusing clinical terminology. Learn how patient-friendly language is changing the conversation.
clinical terminology

You don’t have to be a clinician to know that healthcare is awash with jargon, acronyms, and technical language. All it takes is a quick glance at a medical bill or patient portal to spot the frequent and sometimes troubling gaps between clinical terminology and layman’s terms.

Over the years, numerous studies have shown that for a variety of reasons medical jargon is often misunderstood by patients. Yet despite a general awareness that the words used to communicate with patients can be too complex and clinical, the issue rarely gets the attention it deserves. That is, until now.

Recent regulatory and legislative developments are placing greater emphasis on the language of healthcare to help make it easier for patients to comprehend their diagnoses, treatment plans, and costs. Specifically, rules aimed at combating information blocking and facilitating greater price transparency are now poised to change how and what is communicated – from portals to check-in kiosk to medical bills.

For patients tired of settling for confusing medical lingo, a new era of patient-friendly terminology appears to be on its way. Our insight brief, Searching for the right words: Exploring the need for patient-friendly terminology, takes a look at the challenges involved in creating and implementing more accessible language, the legislative drivers of change, and how IMO is uniquely-positioned to help.

Not ready to commit to a brief? We understand. Check out the excerpt below on why greater access to patient data doesn’t necessarily translate to greater patient understanding.  

Access doesn’t equal understanding

Although the issue of patient-friendly language has flown largely below the radar, new rules from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) may be shifting the focus. 

Information blocking

The 21st Century Cures Act – the most significant piece of legislation to date dealing with healthcare technology and access to electronic medical data – was signed into law in 2016. However, the development and implementation of regulations to address issues like information blocking have taken time to materialize. The ONC Final Rule, implemented in October of 2022, takes aim at the widespread practice of interfering with the access, exchange, or use of electronic health information to help patients more easily retrieve their digital health records through an Application Programming Interface (API). It is a positive development – with some potentially negative implications. 

With the floodgates opened, patients have far greater access to their medical data, but there are no rules around the language to be used. In short, this means that imaging reports, clinical notes, lab results, and other medical data won’t be easily understandable due to the prevalence of things like jargon, acronyms, and standardized codes. Access, in essence, may become yet another barrier to understanding. After all, medical records couched in technical terminology are likely to prompt more confusion and questions for the vast majority of patients and caregivers who lack medical training. 

Price transparency

Two other rules are also worth noting, this time from CMS. The Price Transparency Requirements for Hospitals to Make Standard Charges Public and the Transparency in Coverage rules aim to empower consumers to seek more affordable healthcare options and encourage cost-comparisons between services and providers. In both cases, the agencies in charge have made it clear that words matter. 

For the former, effective January 1, 2021, hospitals are required to share prices for the health services they provide with consumers. It specifies that the “…consumer-friendly display must be accessible online, provide plain language descriptions of the services and group them with ancillary services.”1 Similarly, the latter, effective October 1, 2020, requires most health plans and insurance issuers to disclose cost information upon request. In this case, the rule stipulates that “…the machine-readable file include a plain language description for each billing code.2 

In both situations, failing to provide patient-friendly terminology may be met with financial penalties. Access, it appears, is one thing. Accessibility is completely another. 

1Changes and Payment Rates. Price Transparency Requirements for Hospitals to Make Standard Charges Public.” Federal Register. 27 Nov 2019. Accessed via: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2019-11-27/pdf/2019-24931.pdf 

2No author given. “Transparency in coverage.” Federal Register. 12 Nov 2020. Accessed via: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-11-12/pdf/2020-24591.pdf 

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