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Misunderstanding Medical Terms Hazardous to Health

A report reveals that many patients do not understand key medical terms used by emergency personnel that may be crucial to saving lives.

In an emergency situation, many people may misunderstand key medical terms used by emergency personnel. The result? Valuable minutes may be wasted clearing up the confusion, results of a study suggest.

Specifically, many patients do not understand the meaning of the term "unconscious," according to a report in the Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine.

When a person is unconscious they are breathing, but they cannot speak or hear, and their eyes are closed.

However, anywhere from 47 to 87 percent of people in the study were unclear on the symptoms typical of unconsciousness.

The study revealed that the problem was more prominent in those who did not speak English as their first language.

According to the study authors, understanding consciousness is important to help medical experts gauge the severity of head injury and other illnesses over the phone and to determine if a patient needs an ambulance immediately.

"Those who do not speak English as their first language may receive a lower priority ambulance response because of their misunderstanding of a common medical term," explained M.W. Cooke of the University of Warwick and Walsgrave in Coventry, UK.

The researchers asked 700 people in an inner-city accident and emergency department in the UK one of seven questions that related to the meaning of unconsciousness.

Questions included whether someone who was unconscious would be able to stand up, breathe, talk and hear.

The study found that approximately 25 percent of patients answered one of the questions incorrectly.

To ensure that key medical terms are understood, the authors suggested that caregivers use translation facilities with interpreters of visual aids, or ask supplementary questions, such as how the person was acting.

The authors cautioned, however, that the results of their study, which was conducted in an urban area with a high percentage of patients from ethnic minorities, may not apply to all hospitals.

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