June 16, 2022

Breaking down jargon

Doctor talking to senior couple

Dr. Saurabh Rajguru knows that many of his patients are hearing words like “neutrophils” and “lymphocytes” for the first time in his office.

That’s why Rajguru, who specializes in leukemias and lymphomas, or cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, is careful to avoid as much medical jargon as possible when he speaks with patients and their families. Or when he has to use certain words, he provides some comparisons to explain the concepts.

“I try to phrase things in a more straightforward manner,” Rajguru said.

Rajguru and all of UW Carbone Cancer Center’s oncology care providers want to make sure that cancer patients and their loved ones fully understand every aspect of their disease, care plan and treatments. As part of those efforts, UW Carbone is also using its social media channels each week to highlight common cancer terms and provide plain language explanations.

Rajguru said when he first meets with new patients, he makes sure they know that all questions are welcome and encouraged. Building trust and effective communication is crucial.

“I tell patients that there’s no such thing as too many questions, and there’s no such thing as a bad question,” he said. “Knowledge is power, and the more you know the better we will navigate your journey.”

Rajguru will avoid medical terms as much as possible when he can use more simple phrasing. When he has to define processes, like how a body system functions or how a treatment works, he uses analogies.

For example, Rajguru explains that neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that are your body’s infantry soldiers, the boots-on-the-ground force that fight infections.

He equates the body’s lymph nodes to police stations, and that lymphocites act like police cars bringing bad guys to the station.

When explaining some immunotherapy drugs, Rajguru tells patients the drugs work by “taking the brakes” off the body’s immune system so it can go full speed to find and kill cancer cells.

Rajguru said practicing these real-world explanations of complex medical terms begins during medical school and continues throughout residency and fellowship. Effective patient communication is a crucial aspect of a clinician’s work.

“You hone in on the things that work and don’t work,” he said.

Because discussions about a cancer treatment plan and prognosis can be overwhelming for patients in the moment, Rajguru advises them to take notes or have a loved one join them for that task.

Many patients will think of questions after they leave his office, when they’ve had time to think and process that discussion, and Rajguru advises them to write down those questions to ask again during their next meeting.

“Oftentimes all of this information will come at them at lightspeed, and I tell them that you have a lot of questions now, and you’ll have even more as soon as you leave the office,” he said. “I want them to know it’s an ongoing conversation.”

If a physician does use terms you don’t understand, don’t feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for more explanation.

“We try our best to avoid a lot of medical jargon, but there could be times where maybe we don’t realize we’re using it,” Rajguru said. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t understand, use simpler terms.’ I think we as providers want to know and welcome that discussion.”