Differences in the Intended Meaning of Congestion Between Patients and Clinicians

JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2019 Jul 1;145(7):634-640. doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2019.1023.


Importance: Disagreement in the presumed meaning of common medical terms may impair communication between patients and caregivers.

Objective: To clarify the intended meaning of the term congestion among otolaryngology clinic patients and to identify discrepancies in definitions between patients and otolaryngologists.

Design, setting, and participants: In this cross-sectional survey study from an otolaryngology clinic at an academic center, a semantics-based questionnaire was provided to consecutive new patients during intake for a clinical encounter from December 2016 through February 2017, and to 31 otolaryngologists and 28 nonotolaryngologist physicians in February 2018. Respondent definitions for congestion were selected from a list of 16 proposed terms covering 4 general categories.

Main outcome and measures: Symptom categories for term used to describe congestion by patients and clinicians.

Results: Among 226 patient respondents (133 female [58.8%]; mean [SD] age, 54 [15.6] years), the most commonly selected definitions for congestion were from the obstructive (199; 88.1%) and mucus-related (196; 86.7%) symptom categories. More than 1 general category was selected by 208 patients (92.0%), whereas 11 patients (4.9%) described congestion only in terms of mucus-related symptoms. Definitions were limited to upper respiratory tract symptoms by 83 (36.7%) patients and lower respiratory tract symptoms by 2 (0.9%) patients. Among 31 otolaryngologists, congestion was most frequently defined in terms of obstructive symptoms (difference, 11.9%; 95% CI, 7.4%-16.5%). In contrast, patients more often described congestion in terms of pressure-related (difference, 38.8%; 95% CI, 7.5%-70.1%) or mucus-related (difference, 51.2%; 95% CI, 22.6%-79.9%) symptoms. A total of 22 otolaryngologists (71.0%) defined congestion using 1 to 4 symptoms, compared with only 69 patients (30.5%).

Conclusions and relevance: The definition of congestion appears to be highly variable and ambiguous for many patients. Moreover, the findings suggest that patients and otolaryngologists generally do not describe congestion using the same terms.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Dissent and Disputes
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mucus / physiology
  • Otolaryngologists*
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Terminology as Topic*