Words I Want to Avoid as a Physician: Asymptomatic

I’m starting a new series of posts called “Words I Want to Avoid as a Physician.” 3593239363_a69f948bfe_o

A huge chunk of my day as an ER Scribe is spent observing patient-doctor interactions. Too often I’ve seen physicians use a medical word or phrase that 90% of the time the general population would not know. Unfortunately, some doctors completely miss the fact that their patients are utterly confused.  They feel they have adequately described what was necessary and leave the patient’s room even as the patient’s face clearly is asking, “WTF did he/she just say?”

In especially obvious cases I’m tempted to stay and offer a short explanation, but I’m basically tethered to the physician I’m working with so I risk being left behind and missing something important. Thus, I leave too.

This example of poor communication furthers the disconnect between patients and physicians. Patients nearly always are initially at a position lower than their physician, as they are coming in saying, “I don’t know what is going on, you’re the expert, please figure it out.”

Clearly there are times when certain terminology may communicate most accurately what a physician is trying to explain. But is it the most effective way to communicate? If you describe something accurately but the other party has no idea what you’re talking about, what is accomplished?

With this in mind, I’m keeping track of words and phrases that most often appear to trip up patients and their families. This is mostly for my benefit, so I can go back and read this list when I’m actually practicing medicine and see if I’m actually meeting my own ideals. My goal is to be able to use simple, clear language without coming across as patronizing. Some doctors I work with are great at it, and it’s their example I hope to follow.

My first word/phrase? Asymptomatic. It means without symptoms. Example that I hear often that throws people off: “How long have you been asymptomatic?”

This question is usually answered with a blank stare.

Alternative question: How long have you not had (such and such symptom, cough, fever etc)?

I hope you enjoy the series! I’m cooking up a post about a crazy story in the ER from the other day, stay tuned…

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