January 23, 2022

Why Language in the Medical Setting is so Important

By Katie Taylor, CCLS Spoiler alert, y’all. Cat scans have nothing to do with CATS. They don’t look like cats, they don’t meow, and they certainly aren’t soft. I recently sat down with a mom who is well-versed in all things medical from her own personal and family experiences. Sitting down across from her listening […]

By Katie Taylor, CCLS

Spoiler alert, y’all. Cat scans have nothing to do with CATS. They don’t look like cats, they don’t meow, and they certainly aren’t soft.

I recently sat down with a mom who is well-versed in all things medical from her own personal and family experiences. Sitting down across from her listening to her speak about her son’s kidney disease, you’d think she went to Harvard Medical School and a decade of experience treating babies with end-stage renal disease.

But, she doesn’t have a medical degree. She’s just a working mom of four kids who had no choice but to learn really quickly that her son’s health depended on her ability to understand and execute what the care team was sharing with her

Even for this mom who says that most days she “feels like superwoman” as she navigates the world of caregiving for a medically ill child, she still gets confused when talking with the care team. For weeks in the hospital she heard, “P-O,” time and time again without anyone stopping to explain to her what PO meant.

In my podcast episode with Krystal, a licensed therapist, she shares that for days she thought the care team was telling her that her son had pneumonia, but in reality he had a pneumothorax. One is a common illness that we hear about often, the other is not. So when her son actually came down with pneumonia, she asked the team, “isn’t that what we’ve been treating?”

Child Life Specialists know that medical terminology, and language in general, is so important when talking with children and families. The idea of a magnet taking a picture of the inside of the body seems absurd to the general public, so taking the time to describe what Magnetic Resonance Imaging is and how it works can help promote a successful outcome for the patient and family. Hearing that your child is “stable” when your world feels anything but stable can bring a disconnect to your experience. Defining what stable means, medically, however, can help eliminate some of the disconnect families feel.

Here are some ways to stay ahead of the language issue in healthcare as clinicians:

  • Slow down. Speaking fast can lead to misunderstandings leaving families feeling more confused.
  • Write down the big and small words. Every hospital room has a white board, and in the rare case it doesn’t, encourage the patient to use their phone to write down words. 
  • Explain things to families in simple terms, over and over again. In the hospital, families feel exhausted, worried and overwhelmed. Sometimes they need to hear things a few times before it clicks.
  • Ask the family to “teach back” and share with you what they have absorbed.

Because child life specialists look out for these misconceptions in every interaction, they are vital to making sure families make informed decisions during their child’s care.

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