Is My Doctor Speaking Greek?
When medical staff use complicated words that are hard to understand, don't be afraid to ask for clarification.
You walk into a doctor’s office with your child. Your child is really sick and you’re scared. After all the tests are complete, the doctor walks in and proceeds to use words like appendicitis, leukocytosis, ultrasound, periappendiceal fat stranding, vestigial, laparoscopic, dermabond, etc. You try to keep up, but the more he speaks, the less you understand. Unfortunately, this can be common.
Medical doctors go to medical school for many years to learn this language. Throat pain becomes dysphagia; an ingrown toenail becomes onychocryptosis; and bed-wetting is elevated to nocturnal enuresis. Doctors get accustomed to using fancy words when describing even the simplest of things and sometimes forget that this is not a language known to everyone. Even if a doctor does a great job of explaining a serious illness or painful prognosis, a parent's understandable fear — maybe even shock — means he or she needs time to process and be ready to comprehend what is being explained.
When these things happen and parents do not speak up or ask questions, inevitably they turn to Dr. Google, and that’s where miscommunication gets even worse. The internet is a wonderful resource, but it can contain incorrect or contradicting information, which can be detrimental in effectively advocating for your sick child.
Pediatric surgeons spend a lot of time explaining complex medical issues to parents and children, and find that regardless of the topic or complexity, it is best to start from the beginning and try to tell a story. Let’s use appendicitis as an example.
What is normal?
We first explain what is normal and what the appendix does in the body. “Once upon a time, there was a healthy appendix that did nothing but nap like a cat…”
Where is it?
We explain the anatomy, what the appendix looks like and where is located. We also incorporate drawings for visual learners. (Unless you’ve dissected a human cadaver in an anatomy lab, it’s difficult to envision the location of the appendix.) For those who are not artistically talented, there are computer and tablet apps that work well.
What went wrong?
Next we explain why the appendix is hurting your child. (Appendicitis occurs when this small finger-shaped organ becomes infected.) We assure your child that there’s nothing he or she did to make the appendix become infected; it just happens. In rare cases the appendix ruptures (or pops) like a balloon!
How are we going to fix it?
It’s our hope that these stories have a happy ending, so that’s how we explain it. The standard treatment for typical appendicitis is a short, simple operation to remove the appendix. With very small, specialized tools and scopes, we can remove an infected appendix with a few small incisions.
If you are working with a medical professional who is speaking “Greek” to you, remember:
- It is OK to interrupt and say, “Hold your horses, that word makes no sense.”
- Don’t be afraid to interrupt and ask questions. Ask for more detail or a visual until you understand.
- Repeat it back. Tell the doctor what you think he or she has said.
- Take notes! We even have parents in the health care field do this when it’s their child who is the patient. When your child is hurting and you’re scared, nervous or overwhelmed, even your own medical training can take a back seat.
Maria Baimas-George, MD, MPH, is a surgical resident who works with and is mentored by Pediatric Surgical Associates at Carolinas Medical Center.
Daniel Bambini, MD, is a board-certified pediatric surgeon with Pediatric Surgical Associates in Charlotte.