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How Do Patients Learn the Language of the Diagnosis?


Thu Jul 30 2015

How Do Patients Learn the Language of the Diagnosis?

The very minute that someone is diagnosed with a major illness, an all-new vocabulary is required. The patient needs to learn a collection of new, precise, and multi-syllabic words and complicated acronyms in order to understand what’s happening. The patient’s circle of friends and family needs to learn that new vocabulary in order to understand and then provide appropriate support to the patient and the caregivers.

 So, in addition to managing the stress of illness and its implications, patient and their families need to jump up on a learning curve of a new subject—and its technical vocabulary. How is this being accomplished? 


The literature for healthcare communications professionals is concerned about the “best language” to use with patients, and often stresses plain English. However, writing everything in plain English or at the 6th grade level doesn’t always help adults learn about the complexities and nuances of a medical condition. Another approach might be to address the new language as a language acquisition challenge that must take the patient’s learning experience into consideration. 

Communication is a two-way street, but it seems that all of the literature on communicating with patients and caregivers is directed toward teaching the senders as though the receivers were a passive receptacle. Maybe the knowledge and information will hit the mark, maybe not. Perhaps it’s time to consider the experience of the receivers of the message and information as though we are active participants in the process. To do so, let’s review 1) how adults learn and 2) the impact of stress on this process. 

Considerations for Adult Learners 

While young children learn a new language by listening and repetition, adults are more likely to read their way to greater knowledge. One of the key issues in adult learning is that stress gets in the way of the brain’s ability to process information. In addition to multiple repetitions, adults need to sleep between repetitions in order to consolidate the learning. But first, let me pull apart these thoughts. 

Repetition is more than reading or hearing the same thing again and again. In the world of language acquisition and learning, repetition is more precisely defined. The new word or phrase must be experienced via reading, writing, speaking, and listening. So “repetition” means the information must be received via multiple neural pathways. 


What’s more, the word “repetition” implies a variety of sentences, meanings, and situational contexts, as well as grammatical contexts.  So reading the same sentence again and again and again doesn’t do the job because it’s the same neural pathway. In other words, there is no variation to the information. 

Although consistent representations of the same concept make it easier for a group of writers to communicate, it actually isn’t making it easier—or better—for the learner. The “approved” language for any word or phrase may go a long way to reducing confusion, but it may not serve that additional function of increasing understanding. And, let’s face it, patients will come to some understanding as to what’s going on in their bodies and the goal of patient educators is to assure an accurate understanding. 

Conversations with healthcare professionals have made it clear that there is no way to know how any specific patient is going to react. Some will research on the web with more or less success, some will just be passive or fatalistic victims of their illness, and others will strive to become true subject matter experts. 

Every Illness Has Its Own Language 

Here is my focus: Consider a new diagnosis to be a learning challenge as well as a health challenge. The only way to learn the new vocabulary is via repetition, and patients need a way of refreshing their memories as to the meaning and nuance of new words and phrases. It's not the "best language" to use with patients, but rather consider it as an effort to teach "new language," which is fundamentally new words. 


Lectures and discussions during periods of stress such as new diagnosis, hospital intake, or discharge cannot stand alone. For example, via glossaries and learning tools, the patient can become positioned to casually and comfortably add to their knowledge and understanding. Imagine an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand glossary, designed by local healthcare professionals, that includes medical terminology, hospital locations, procedures, and process lingo. It can be done. 

Basic glossaries support the patient learning experience as they do their own research on the web, talk to friends and family, and read directions and information from their medical professionals. Glossaries allow the trainers to identify the appropriate vocabulary, language, and context to the condition or diagnosis, and then provide the patient with a means to reinforce their new learning.

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