Objectives Medical terms that are familiar to physicians and other health care workers may often be misunderstood by the lay person. With the addition of a language barrier, the possibility of communication errors is all the more likely. The objective of this study was to evaluate how common medical terms are defined and understood by the Spanish-speaking population in an urban area.
Methods A cross-sectional convenience survey was verbally conducted by the primary investigator and two assistants, all of whom speak Spanish. The surveys were conducted in the pediatric waiting area of an urban health department that provides primary pediatric care to a large Spanish-speaking population. The survey consisted of open-ended questions regarding the definitions of eight commonly used medical terms. Responses were grouped into four categories: correct, nonspecific, incorrect, and “don't know.”
Results A total of 84 surveys were completed. Ninety-four percent of caregivers were from Mexico. Thirty percent had lived in the United States for 2 or 3 years. Seventy-three percent believed that they understood what their doctor told them either all or most of the time. Most (95%) participants in the survey were either the mother and/or the father, and the majority of these (90%) were the primary caregivers for their children. The majority of those surveyed were able to accurately define constipation (88%), diarrhea (78%), cold (75%), fracture (73%), and dehydration (60%). A substantial number of responses were considered “nonspecific” for virus (31%), dehydration (30%), fracture (21%), cold (19%), and diarrhea (18%). Six percent of participants considered a virus something dangerous. The majority of caregivers were unable to accurately define meningitis (95%) or lethargic (92%). Eighteen percent considered meningitis a problem related to the throat.
Conclusions Care must be taken when physicians are eliciting patient histories and when giving care plan and discharge instructions to Spanish-speaking caregivers to ensure congruity in the definitions of medical terms by both parties.
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