Demystifying the Language of Healthcare and Social Services

By Levine, Carol | Aging Today, September/October 2016 | Go to article overview

Demystifying the Language of Healthcare and Social Services


Levine, Carol, Aging Today


In the early 20th century, the architect Louis Sullivan designed very tall buildings to meet the needs of a newly urban population. These structures illustrated his assertion that "form follows function." The new forms needed a new name, and "skyscrapers" fit perfectly.

In our times, the rapidly evolving world of healthcare and social services follows a similar pattern. As the forms of organizations and practices change to meet new functions and demands, new terminology follows. Communication among disciplines is essential as the brave new world of healthcare strives for "integration," "continuum of care" and "care coordination," all of which mean different things to physicians, nurses, social workers, administrators, budget monitors and others. Added to these are totally new terms such as precision medicine, genomics and biobanking.

Some of the new healthcare language has been borrowed from business and finance; words like "incentivize," "consumer choice" and "optimizing performance" are typical. Industry consultants market their services in ways that show they know the lingo. For example, an announcement for a "summit" (it's no longer enough to hold a "conference") promises participants they will "take away actionable techniques to navigate the pitfalls in the LTSS and duals space." (If that sentence is totally clear, you are probably already fluent in health-policy speak.)

Health Literacy: Not Just About Illness and Treatment

In this language explosion, when even professionals can't agree on what some terms mean, why are patients and family caregivers expected to be "healthliterate"? According to the Institute of Medicine, health literacy is "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions" (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004, Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion; http://goo.gl/wN ßgN). Basic health information about one's body and illnesses may be easier to learn than information about obtaining services, not to mention the language of insurance coverage, which is nearly impenetrable for novices.

A typical example occurs in homecare discussions. The words are simple enough-nurse, aide, in-home caregiver -but they carry the baggage of years of legislative, regulatory and budgetary history, as well as newer entrepreneurial efforts. A quick translation: Nurses provide "skilled care," such as wound care and administering injections and infusions. Aides provide assistance with personal care and homemaking and monitoring. Services by nurses and aides may (or may not) be covered by insurance, and eligibility requirements differ. In-home caregivers provide companionship and some homemaking chores and personal care. Their services are arranged through forprofit agencies and paid for privately. How can an older adult and family caregiver make sense of these options without a course in Homecare 101?

There are many reasons for poor health literacy, starting with a lack of basic literacy skills, poor education, poverty, cultural beliefs, mistrust of the healthcare system and others. Individuals should not be blamed or chided for their failure to understand or remember instructions, explanations or unfamiliar terms. Improving health literacy should be a professional collaboration with patients and family caregivers and an ongoing effort.

Differences between Jargon and Slang

Jargon generally means language understandable only to insiders in a specialized field. But jargon is not inherently bad. All professions, trades, sports and groups have ways to communicate that create a common vocabulary and a shared understanding of the way things work.

Jargon often is the quickest way to communicate precise observations, conclusions and actions. A surgeon who calls out "No. 10 scalpel, stat" instead of "Give me the scalpel with the rounded blade, not the one with the triangular blade and the sharp point, and I need it immediately" will get the job done faster and more competently. …

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