Kevan Christie: Pro bono publico – doctors to ditch Latin for English

Doctors are being advised to talk about breathlessness, rather than dyspnoea
Doctors are being advised to talk about breathlessness, rather than dyspnoea
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In a welcome move into the 21st century, doctors are finally being told to ditch the Latin and use plain English instead.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has highlighted that all too often correspondence from GPs contains complex medical jargon, when it could be written in simple language.

The Please Write to Me initiative is aimed mainly at doctors working in outpatient clinics, although it is designed to be best practice for all clinicians who need to write medical letters.

And those doctors are being asked to write directly to patients, rather than sending them a copy of a letter penned to their GP.

The academy says this should help avoid blunders or the potential to cause offence by writing about patients in the third person. It uses the example of a surgeon branded sexist after praising a father for “manfully stepping in” to take his daughter to a hospital appointment when his wife was too ill.

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I’ve always thought that the use of Latin and unintelligible handwriting was the GP’s way of lording it over us poor unfortunate souls who never went to medical school – during the ten minutes it takes to get us out of their surgery.

Doctors have been urged to translate medical words into plain English. For example, dyspnoea should instead be breathlessness and cerebral should be substituted with brain – perhaps for the less cerebral among us.

All of this makes sense and may cut down on the stampede to consult Dr Google every time we get a prescription, want to check what it is, and if you can drink alcohol with it.

Hospital doctors are being told they should consider telephoning patients rather than breaking bad news in a letter if test results are potentially upsetting.

The plain English issue got me thinking about the wider use of language in the context of health.

All too often serious and, particularly terminal illness is talked about in terms of “fighting”, “battling” or “beating” it with the focus on “brave heroes”, who are somehow kicking cancer’s backside, for instance.

The problem with all of this rhetoric – and the media are the prime culprits – is that as well as being outdated it puts huge pressure on the patient who might not be feeling particularly heroic on any given day.

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There’s an inevitability to the process, the person is automatically labelled brave for doing nothing more than becoming ill and so the “fight” begins.

It’s more useful to talk about illness in terms of the person “living with” the condition rather than the commonly used war-like metaphors.

A 2014 study by Lancaster University found that this type of language – whether employed by the media, charities raising awareness of a disease or by patients themselves – was damaging to some people. They found that those diagnosed with terminal cancer were said to be “losing their battle” and many patients were unhappy that their illness was being discussed in this way.

The researchers found blame was put on the patient and there was a sense that if you are dying then you must have given up and not fought hard enough.

The problem becomes particularly acute when children are involved with a set process having crept in of late. Again the talk is all about the fight and the bravery of the child involved, but this is nothing more than a sideshow to what’s really going on and gets us nowhere in terms of understanding terminal illness.