February 4, 2023

Eureka News

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If you thought business jargon was bad. . .

Like every other journalist I know, I spent part of the last week playing around with ChatGPT, a new artificial intelligence chatbot that can write jokes, poems, student essays, and, yes, newspaper columns.

When I asked him to “write a hilarious column,” he replied:

“As I sit here and type on my laptop, I can’t help but feel like the biggest idiot in the world. And no, it’s not just because I spent half an hour trying to figure out how to get my cat off the keyboard (spoiler alert: I failed miserably). people could have been written. Not a very flamboyant person, but still.

There were occasional clichés, and I think the chatbot’s definition of “hilarious” has been stretched. Impressively, however, he repeatedly managed to avoid a mistake that continues to plague people: jargon.

In fact, it was suspicious of some of the worst kinds – business jargon – stating that the chatter about synergies and KPIs can be “confusing or exclusive”. “In general,” it said stiffly, “it’s best to use clear and direct language that can be easily understood by anyone listening or reading.” Quite a bit.

I was still thinking about it a day later when I came across a new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota that discussed a type of jargon I hadn’t thought much about before but should have: medical Diversity.

It’s fun to laugh at people talking about blue sky thinking in the realm of low hanging fruit in the future. It’s definitely worse to tell a patient something about their health that they don’t fully understand.

Doctors have known this for years, but like their jargon-spewing corporate colleagues, they’re sticking with it.

Unfortunately, this means some still use terms that ordinary people think mean the opposite of what is intended, especially when it comes to “positive” and “negative” test results.

Although 96 percent of people understood that a negative cancer test result was good news, only 67 percent knew that the phrase “your nodes are positive” means the cancer had spread, the Minnesota researchers found.

Acronyms are also confusing. Some doctors still use terms like NPO, from the Latin nil per os, or nothing by mouth, when telling a patient not to eat or drink anything for a period of time.

The study shows how risky that can be. When participants were shown the phrase “You must be an NPO by 8am,” only 11 percent understood what was meant. But 75 percent knew exactly what to do when told, “You can’t eat after 4 p.m.”

It is best to use clear and straightforward language that can be easily understood by anyone listening or reading

Words with a different meaning in medicine also mean trouble. When doctors speak of an “occult infection,” they mean a hidden infection. In the Minnesota study, more people thought it had something to do with a curse.

The researchers believe their study is the largest of its kind and the first to compare how well people understand technical and non-jargon sentences.

But it is by no means the first to reveal the problem. Other papers from the US and Europe have shown that medical jargon has been confusing cancer patients, diabetics and the parents of sick children or premature babies for years.

The good news is that patient understanding is beginning to improve.

Back in 2001, a British study showed that only 52 percent of people understood that the phrase “the tumor progressed” was bad news, which is not surprising given that progress generally means something good is happening. But 79 percent of the participants in the Minnesota study knew that this phrase actually means the opposite.

It’s not entirely clear why understanding is increasing, but the pandemic may have helped. Years of waiting to see if a Covid test is positive or negative could explain why there is now almost universal understanding that a negative cancer test is good news.

In any case, it’s better to stick to something everyone will understand immediately, like “the test doesn’t show cancer.” That way, as the AI ​​chatbot says, there’s a better chance doctors will be understood by their patients, their patients’ families — and each other.

pilita.clark@ft.com