Patient understanding of commonly used oral medicine terminology

Key Points

  • Discusses the level of understanding of words used in clinical discussion by patients.

  • Considers the impact of education and language on level of understanding.

  • Emphasises the importance of good communication with patients.


Introduction Communication within the doctor-patient relationship is complex due to a variety of reasons; a patient's understanding may not correspond with the clinician's vocabulary, resulting in misunderstanding, anxiety and ill-informed decision making. We investigated the understanding of terminology commonly used in oral and maxillofacial surgery and oral medicine clinics.

Methods We investigated patients' understanding using a questionnaire-based study in the out-patient setting. Age, gender, first language and highest educational level were recorded. The questionnaire included multiple choice questions regarding patients' understanding of words as well as asking patients to define certain terms. Vocabulary included 'ulcer', 'blister', 'cancer', 'malignant' and 'benign'.

Results and conclusions Many patients have difficulty in understanding and explaining commonly used terminology. 'Blister' was the most commonly understood term, while 'benign' and 'lesion' were the least well understood. 'Tumour' was mistakenly thought of as synonymous with 'malignancy' by over a third of patients. Understanding was better among those for whom English was their first language. It is essential that all clinicians modify their language appropriately during consultations in order to deliver information in a comprehensive manner, to educate patients on their condition thus enabling informed decision making by patients.

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The administrative and nursing team who distributed and collected the questionnaires.

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Correspondence to E. Hayes.

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Hayes, E., Dua, R., Yeung, E. et al. Patient understanding of commonly used oral medicine terminology. Br Dent J 223, 842–845 (2017).

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