Spell It Out: Writing Out Common Medical Terms Boosts Patient Understanding, Says Study

John McCormack

May 16, 2022

MI. HTN. hx. Although these abbreviations might make it easier for physicians and other healthcare professionals to create and consume clinical documentation, the shorthand confuses patients, according to a study published May 13 in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers, who conducted clinical trials at three hospitals, found that expansion of 10 common medical abbreviations and acronyms in patient health records significantly increased overall comprehension (see chart).

Corresponding author Lisa Grossman Liu, PhD, MD, at Columbia University in New York City, told Medscape Medical News that "comprehension of abbreviations was much lower than we expected and much lower than the clinicians who participated in this study expected."

This discovery is particularly relevant in this era of digital care, where providers are now communicating with patients electronically more than ever before — and are required by rules emanating from the 21st Century Cures Act to provide online access to electronic health records.  

Using Elongated Terms

Although the study found that expansion of medical abbreviations and acronyms can improve patient understanding, identifying all of the medical abbreviations that exist is difficult because the terms vary by specialty and geography. The fact that many abbreviations and acronyms have multiple meanings complicates matters even more. For example, the abbreviation PA has 128 possible meanings, Grossman Liu pointed out.

Technology, fortunately, has advanced in the last few years and is on the cusp of providing a solution. Artificial intelligence systems could help to develop large compendiums of abbreviations and acronyms and then machine learning could elongate the words.

"We're almost to the point where we have these automated systems that can actually expand abbreviations pretty well and with a great degree of accuracy and…where those can actually be used in medicine to help with patient communication," Grossman Liu said.

Such intervention, however, is not a cure-all.

"There are abbreviations that are really hard to understand even after you expand them such as MI for myocardial infarction, which is really a tough term all around. It means heart attack. So even if you tell patients, MI means myocardial infarction, they're still not going to understand it," Grossman Liu said.

On the flip side, patients are likely to understand some abbreviations such as hrs, which stands for hours, without elongating the words.

Moving from In-Person to Online Communication

A look at the evolution of clinical documentation explains how this abbreviation problem came to fruition. Prior to this digital age where providers communicate with patients through portals, secure messaging, and other electronic methods, patients and providers would talk face-to-face. Now, however, electronic written communication is becoming the norm.

"We are not only seeing direct written communication through things like messaging systems or email, but also patients are now reading their medical records online and you can consider that as a form of communication," Grossman Liu said. "It's really interesting that the electronic health record itself has essentially become a medium for communication between patients and providers when previously it was only a way for providers to communicate with themselves and document patient care. So, clinicians use abbreviations because they aren't intending for patients to see the records."

Requiring physicians to use complete words in clinical documentation now that electronic records are relied on for patient communication, however, is not a practical solution.

"Abbreviations are so commonly used because they are more efficient to read and more efficient to write. We really shouldn't be putting the onus on providers to spell out all the abbreviations in their notes. That's realistically not going to work, because it compromises clinical efficiency," Grossman Liu said.

While physicians should not be forced to use complete words in documentation, they should be wary of patients' unfamiliarity with abbreviations as they communicate in person.  

"I use terms like ED constantly when I talk to patients, and it turns out that only 67% of patients understand what you're talking about when you say ED in reference to the emergency department. So it's important to be mindful of that," Grossman Liu concluded. 

Table. Comprehension Differences Between Abbreviated
and Expanded Terms

Abbreviation Comprehension Percentage Score Expansion Comprehension Percentage Score
hrs 93% hours 100%
MD 93% medical doctor 100%
BP 83% blood pressure 100%
ED 67% emergency department 100%
yo 90% year old 100%
pt 67% patient 100%
HF 20% heart failure 100%
hx 43% history 100%
HTN 23% hypertension 97%
MI 37% myocardial infarction 53%

Source: JAMA Network Open

John McCormack is a Riverside, Illinois-based freelance writer covering healthcare information technology, policy, and clinical care issues.

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