Humanizing Medspeak

“Doctor, could you speak to me in plain English, please?!”
I rarely hear this in my men’s health practice. It’s likely because I am aware that Medspeak, or the language of medicine, is a second tongue, and a very foreign one to boot.

The Language of Medicine

There are 750 muscles, 206 bones, 428 named nerves and 60,000 miles of named and unnamed arteries and veins in the adult human body. Add to this all known body organs and physiological and molecular pathways and it becomes clear that the first two years of medical school involves learning 20,000 new vocabulary words, the equivalent of an entirely new language. Suddenly, sweating becomes diaphoresis, vomiting becomes emesis and red becomes erythematous. Throw in normal physiology and disease states in the second two years of medical school, and you have another 20,000 word vocabulary lesson. For some reason, patients now ambulate, visualize, articulate and masticate when the rest of us walk, see, talk and chew. That’s two whole languages to be learned in 4 years.

The Beauty of Medspeak

The vocabulary of medicine can be elegant, efficient and sound oh-so beautiful with all those Latin words. There is something poetic and mellifluous about the word “vestigial” which is a leftover structure with no current function, like the appendix. Another example: I recently hurt my thumb after my 7-year old daughter’s ace tetherball serve. Presenting my black and blue thumb to my favorite orthopedic surgeon, he said: “A minor bruise to your flexor pollicis longus and brevis muscles.” Just sort of rolls off your tongue. Felt better already.

The Vagaries of Medspeak

But Medspeak can also dehumanize. In the field of men’s health, I hear the words “idiopathic epididymitis” all the time. That’s eleven syllables of Medspeak in just 2 words. Sounds impressive but what does it really mean? How’s this: “unexplained scrotal pain that is not due to cancer or other badness.” When put in front of another word, “essential” also means unexplained. Admittedly, Medspeak can make even the vague and unknown sound official.
When commenting on written Medspeak, the late author-doctor Michael Crichton wrote: “I don’t agree… that medical writing is inept. I argue that it is actually a highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader.” Agreed. When used excessively or carelessly, it is dehumanizing and can change the moment and direction of a patient’s life.
While I was a resident at the University of Pennsylvania years ago, a college friend who trained with me gave me a small book of poems to carry around. I opened it during those rare, quiet moments that can happen while on call. The book was by William Carlos Williams, a noted doctor-poet. Dr. Williams fully understood the two edged sword of Medspeak when he noted: “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.”