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The Importance of Understanding Medical Terminology

The Importance of Clinical and Non-Clinical Staff Understanding Medical Terminology

Breast cancer, vehicle crashes, AIDS and medical error. Which do you think causes the most deaths per year? It may surprise you to learn that it is medical error.

According to two major studies undertaken the United States of America, medical error causes the deaths of 44,000 to 98,000 deaths per year. (Institute of Medicine, ‘To err is human’). Medical errors can be defined as the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim.

These medical errors can range from adverse drug events and improper transfusions, surgical injuries and wrong-site surgery, suicides, restraint-related injuries or death, falls, burns, pressure ulcers, and mistaken patient identities.

Within the past 15 years, a significant patient safety concern has emerged; medication error. Studies have shown that medication error accounts for around 7,000 deaths per year. These deaths can be avoided if all staff receive patient safety training on medical terminology.

The Cost of Medical Errors

It is not just the cost of unnecessary deaths that medical errors relate to. An American study estimates that in monetary terms, medical errors costs hospitals between $17 billion and $29 billion per year. As well as this, hospitals and the health care sector lose the trust of patients.

This leads to dissatisfaction from not just patients but also staff. Patients who are victims of medical errors are also left with the physical and psychological pain and discomfort that medical errors cause.

Medical staff suffer from loss of morale and are left frustrated at not being able to provide the best care possible. For example, a receptionist who doesn’t understand certain medical terms may feel embarrassed to tell patients or doctors that they do not understand certain words and abbreviations.

Lack of Knowledge on Medical Terminology

A real life example of this can be found when looking at the outsourcing the transcribing of doctors notes to India. They are being transcribed by secretaries in India; however they are containing potentially life-threatening errors. It has been argued that this is because of either a lack of knowledge of the English language or the use of complicated medical terms.

It has also been argued that the use of computer spell checkers is leading to some medical terms being replaced by non-medical terms. For example, in one transcript, the drug “Lansoprazole”, which is used to treat stomach ulcers, was transcribed as the Spanish island of “Lanzarote”.

In another case, “phlebitis (vein inflammation) left leg” was changed to “flea bite his left leg”. One note referred to a patient’s “cute angina” instead of “acute angina”. “Euston station tube malfunction” should have read “Eustachian tube malfunction”.

Michael Fiennes of the Association of Medical Secretaries has stated that he has examples of mistakes creeping into letters, some so serious that they could lead to patients being given the wrong dose of medication. For example, 5mg could easily become 50mg.

Therefore it is important that all staff, clinical and non-clinical are trained to understand medical terminologies so that fatal mistakes do not occur in the future.

Watch Vicky Wild BSc (Hons), RGN, PGCE, who is subject matter expert in medical terminology training, explain why medical terminology training is important here.

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