HealthNovember 17, 2023

Improving health literacy: Translating medical jargon

By: Amber Olsen, PhD, MPH, LPN, CPC
Translating medical jargon to consumer-friendly language can improve health literacy and aid patients in making informed decisions.

Putting the patient at the center of their healthcare is a top priority in the industry's shift to value-based care. Giving individuals the appropriate access and ownership of their health data and information is the first step in empowering them to advocate for their care. While sometimes the data itself is accessible, it's not always presented in a manner that's easy to understand due to the complexity, codes, and medical jargon.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is how much an individual can understand and use the information provided to make informative health decisions. Poor health literacy is linked to increased health services usage, fewer people understanding their health, and worse overall health outcomes.

Why is health literacy important?

Understanding clinical language can be difficult for multiple reasons, including the complexity of the healthcare infrastructure and medical terminology. Patients with chronic diseases, poor education, low income, and non-fluent English speakers are more likely to have challenges with health literacy in the US. These barriers affect the quality of care received, patient safety, patient satisfaction, and health outcomes.

The Hospital Transparency Act was set into place as of January 1, 2021, requiring every hospital in the nation to provide public pricing of services in plain language to aid in making informed health decisions and improve health literacy.

Translating medical jargon to consumer-friendly language to improve transparency and health literacy

Consumer-friendly terminology is critical for healthcare providers and health plans to enable consumers to comprehend the language that their providers use and to take charge of their health. Descriptions should enable non-clinical individuals to easily understand healthcare information being relayed by their providers and clinicians. They could be used in the information patients or their family or other caregivers could receive on an after-visit summary, patient instructions, explanation of benefits, or on their bill from a health organization or insurance provider.

Examples of consumer-friendly descriptions

Industry Term Consumer Description
Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus with Other Diabetic Arthropathy Type 1 diabetes (high blood sugar disease) caused by lack of insulin with joint disease
Quant Sensory Test&Interpj/Xtr w/Vibrj Stimuli Measurement of sensory impairment of an arm of leg using vibration
Intracranial Vascular Procedures with Principal Diagnosis Hemorrhage Without Cc/Mcc Blood vessel operations inside the skull because of bleeding inside the brain

Integrating consumer-friendly descriptions across your organization

Creating and maintaining a library of consumer-friendly terms can be a time consuming and costly endeavor, with estimates of over $1.6 million for small-medium size organizations. Many provider and payer organizations are leveraging a terminology server with APIs to integrate the terminologies across systems that need to be kept up-to-date with these patient- and member-facing terms. Utilizing automated processes aides in compliance with policies and regulations relating to Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) governance and avoiding fines.

As experts in clinical terminology, Wolters Kluwer has curated English and Spanish consumer-friendly descriptions for diagnosis and procedures for multiple code types (such as CPT, ICD 10-CM, HCPCS, CDT and MS-DRG) that are updated regularly as changes are released by the standards bodies. As part of our ongoing commitment to improve health equity, we understand the importance of consumer-friendly descriptions to aid in patients making informed health decisions. Please reach out today to speak to an expert about how consumer-friendly descriptions can help improve transparency for your organization.

Amber Olsen, PhD, MPH, LPN, CPC
Senior Content Management Analyst
Amber Olsen, PhD, MPH, LPN, CPC, is a Senior Content Management Analyst at Wolters Kluwer, Health Language. She specializes in sensitivity codes, consumer friendly descriptions, HEDIS, ICD10CM attributes, and LOINC pre-releases.
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