Avoiding abbreviations boosts patient understanding of their health records

Study shows a marked improvement when medical abbreviations and acronyms are spelled out instead

A study of patient comprehension showed that when medical abbreviations and acronyms were avoided, patients were significantly more likely to understand the information being provided to them by physicians.

When 10 common medical abbreviations were expanded, researchers found a significant increase in overall comprehension from 62% to 95%. The findings suggest that expanding medical abbreviations and acronyms can improve patient understanding of their health information and may benefit ongoing national efforts to provide patients with electronic access to their own documentation.

The study appeared in JAMA Network Open.

Even though study participants had substantial prior exposure to the health care system, comprehension of common abbreviations such as MI or HTN remained below 40%, which is lower than clinicians estimated.

Researchers recommend that clinicians be mindful of assuming patients understand abbreviations. However, not all abbreviations are equal. Those that are well understood, such as hrs or MD, as well as those whose meanings are still poorly understood even when expanded, such as myocardial infarction, did not benefit from expanstion.

The number of patients accessing their medical records is expected to increase, but researchers note that medical abbreviations and acronyms often limit patient understanding of health records. One possible solution is an automated expansion of abbreviations through software, but it is unclear whether the benefit is large enough to justify the cost of implementation.