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October 18, 1985

Layman's Terms

Author Affiliations

La Grande, Ore

JAMA. 1985;254(15):2134. doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03360150114038

Communicating well with patients can be a challenging affair. Patients often appeal to their physicians "to talk in layman's terms." This idea, reasonable on the surface, can actually be part of the problem that prevents their clear understanding of their conditions.

I would submit that employing layman's terms is not the best means of discussing medical problems with patients. The terms themselves come from surprisingly diverse, sometimes untraceable sources. A common medical term over time and use may degenerate into a catch-all layman's term, or a common-use phrase may be falsely elevated to the "status" of a medical or scientific term.

Let me use "pinkeye" as an example. Its definition is "acute contagious conjunctivitis," but its meaning has become blurred (no pun intended). I saw a patient with bilateral viral conjunctivitis and told him that he had a contagious infection. He responded, "Thank goodness it's not pinkeye!"

A pediatric nurse