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October 11, 1976

The Language of the Heart

Author Affiliations

Tufts University School of Medicine Boston
From the Departments of Psychiatry (Dr Blacher) and Medicine (Dr Levine), Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.

JAMA. 1976;236(15):1699. doi:10.1001/jama.1976.03270160021021

WE HAVE been concerned about the diagnostic terms that colleagues use when describing cardiac disease to their patients. Despite their efforts to be scrupulously honest in their explanations, the technical words they often use may fail to convey an actual understanding of the condition and may indeed mislead the patient and evoke unnecessary and even devastating anxiety.

Physicians can translate medical jargon and understand the physiological state we are trying to describe. Not so our patients. For example, to the laymen the term "heart failure" sounds terrifying and implies a terminal cardiac state. When the physician dispenses digitalis to such a patient and tells him that the "heart muscle is a bit tired and lacks the normal vigor of contraction," the message so transmitted is actually more informative and is certainly less destructive to the patient's morale.

"Heart block" is another term that is widely misinterpreted. To the physician, this