Vet Talk

Speaking Civilian, not ‘Medicalese’

If you're unsure what's going on, ask your vet to explain in clear English

October 7, 2013 (published)

Photo by Teri Ann Oursler, DVM

I absolutely love medical words. Seriously, where other than the world of medicine do you get use words like siphonapterosis, cholecystoduodenostomy, or pheochromocytoma? They just roll off the tongue, and I get the same sensation saying them I as I do when I eat fine European chocolate. Sort of a lusty, tongue-coating warmth.

As fun as they are to say, the lust for them has to exist for the recipient as much as it does for the speaker. If I am talking to a fellow doctor, a long medicalese word can convey paragraphs worth of information in a just a few (admittedly unwieldy) syllables. Even though they are long and seemingly complex words, if everyone involved digs their meaning, they become a sort of shorthand and we can get down to the healing portion of the work at hand. Everyone is on the same level, and information transfer from one brain to the next is smooth.

If the person listening is a non-medical normal person, though, these wonderful words that pack so much meaning into just a few letters strung together work the opposite magic. The listener ends up confused, ill-informed and tunes out the speaker. The transfer of information from one brain to the next comes to a screeching halt. Not only is the information not transferred, future attempts at communication falter because the listener no longer trusts the speaker and stops caring what they have to say because they know they won’t understand it.

We have eight fresh-out-of-the-package doctors at Purdue right now. They constitute our new class of interns. They have just spent four years filling their Broca’s area with these lusty European chocolate words, and they are itchin’ to use them. They have rightly earned the privilege of acting like a doctor, and, along with the stethoscope and lab coat, the lingo is part of the costume that we wear as we play doctor.

This, on occasion, causes problems.

We live and die by clients. They bring the animals in for us to treat, they pay the bills that keep the lights on, and they need to be an active and informed part of the medical decision making. But they are usually neurotypicals and their mother tongue is usually Normalese. If they are flummoxed by a barrage of medicalese and don’t know what is going on, the process gets that much harder. The interns all go through the same arc of learning. They confuse the first couple dozen owners with their ginormous medical lexicon, suffer through the same quizzical stares and then, gradually, learn to speak civilian.

I did the same thing. I don’t hit the mark all the time (due to my love of big words, sometimes I let some slip through) but I think I have developed a pretty good ability to talk to pet owners like they are normal humans and tone down the jargon I think it helps people see that I am human, too (for the most part) and I can explain things without resorting to buzzwords.

If your doctor leaves you in the dust with a list if 'itis'es and oomphalophlebosises and you have no idea what's going on, kindly stop and ask him or her to explain any terms or concepts that you didn't catch. They may not even be aware that they did it, but I am sure they'll appreciate the chance to give you a greater understanding of what's going on with your pet.

It's also never a bad idea to summarize what you think they are telling you. Doctors do this when we get a history from our pet owners: "So what you are telling me is..." That way, if there's been any breakdown in the message going from the doctor to you, you can catch it before the conversation ends.

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