Common medical terms defined by parents: are we speaking the same language?

Pediatr Emerg Care. 2004 Nov;20(11):754-8. doi: 10.1097/01.pec.0000144918.00995.8a.


Objectives: Physicians often assume that a patient understands frequently utilized medical words and patient management may be based on these assumptions. The objective of this study was to determine the public's definition of regularly used medical terminology.

Methods: A cross-sectional convenience survey was conducted for guardians of children presenting to an urban pediatric emergency department. The orally completed, open-ended questionnaire included parental demographic information and their definition of eleven commonly used medical terms. The words chosen represent common chief complaints given in our emergency department. Definitions were grouped, and a concordance rate of 75% was chosen to consider responses similar.

Results: One hundred twenty-two guardians completed the survey (89% parents, 88% female, and 55% high school graduates). Caregivers agreed on the definitions of diarrhea, constipation, dehydration, fever, and seizure. However, diarrhea and constipation were mainly defined by either stool consistency or frequency, not both. Dehydration was appropriately defined as lack of body fluids (92%), but many parents had difficulty identifying more than one sign of dehydration. Fever was thought to be an elevated body temperature (76%), yet 69% felt that a temperature less than 100.5 degrees F was considered a fever. Most respondents did not know the definitions of meningitis (70%), lethargy (64%), and virus (40%).

Conclusions: Although commonly used in everyday conversation, there seems to be a large disparity between a caregiver's perception and the actual definition of medical terms. More precise communication may help both parties to understand the true situation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents*
  • Terminology as Topic*