Don't Trust Me for Health News

Really.  A new survey says there are two reasons patients are having difficulty understanding, or getting their  medical conditions right.

One, they rely too much on the Internet (to which, I can personally attest, after being diagnosed with breast cancer), where the information is often, if not inaccurate, not always applicable to every person.  And two, the reading level of educational materials medical professionals have on hand are often confusing and too hard to understand for most anyone who's not a doctor.

According to a story at Reuters Health, "The average reading level of the online materials by groups ranging from the American Society of Anesthesiologists to the American Psychiatric Association fell anywhere from ninth grade to the sophomore year of college."

What's the level recommended by the American Medical Association?  Fourth to sixth grade.  While that sounds pretty low, keep in mind that we're talking about very technical terms and situations that even college grads might have trouble understanding. Writer Ivan Oransky reports that the average American reads at the 7th or 8th grade level, anyway.

And then there's the jargon.  "Organizations often end up using jargon," Lisa Gualtieri, who studies health communication at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, but was not involved in the new research, told They end up "using the language they're accustomed to as opposed to (the language) the people they're trying to reach are accustomed to using," she told Reuters Health, as reported by The Chicago Tribune.

Doctors even advise patients to bring another person with them on appointments when surgery or other procedures loom.  That's because, in addition to not understanding the medical terms or jargon, patients are often in a nervous, anxious state and may not comprehend or remember certain important facts.  I can remember being told about the next steps after my breast cancer was diagnosed (got the diagnosis over the phone), and just sitting there, numb, not really taking in anything.

As for the Internet, very often medical information is incomplete if not downright wrong. And what's the good of reading that 20% percent of patients with your condition die, when you're in the other 80%?

So, take everything with a grain of salt.  And if you have questions after meeting with your doctor, contact him or her again.  That's what they're there for, after all.


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