Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Trepanning Medical Latin: The language barrier between doctor and patient

Trepanning Medical Latin: The language barrier between doctor and patient

Kayla J. Hurd

In the healthcare field, communication between doctor and patient is essential in both diagnosis and treatment of disease. However, issues often arise during these interactions when complicated medical Latin terminology is involved, leading to confusion. This lack of understanding of the so-called ‘dead language’ is to blame. Here medical Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes will be presented as the underlying components of the language, as they provide hidden context clues to enhance learning for medical students, doctors, and patients alike. The history and, although sometimes incorrect, use of the Terminologia Anatomica is discussed as it is the official guide to medical Latin for students new to the field. As seen in the literature, the main dilemma that medical professionals face is whether or not it is appropriate to use medical Latin or other complex terminology with their patients. It is evident that the power gained from learning medical Latin is critical to the belief that these medical professionals are qualified to treat patients. A look into an on-going study involving African American patients and their oncologists provides insight into relevant communication issues to the Metro Detroit area. However, it is shown that even when medical Latin is not utilized, there are still communication issues between doctor and patient that need to be remedied.

Keywords: medical Latin, communication, doctor, patient, power, language barrier

April 11, 2016 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Kayla, this is a very interesting topic. I can relate to these issues because I have had multiple instances of miscommunication between doctor and family members who were patients. It would be interesting to know if this problem is apparent with patient’s family members who visit the patients when the doctor is explaining the issues in Latin terminology to the patient. Also, I think it’s funny when doctors try to explain what’s going on to a patient that is heavily medicated and is therefore very loopy and out of it. Add latin terms on top of that and I can only image how confused patients would be.

    Comment by Ashlee Jed | April 19, 2016 | Reply

  2. This is an interesting topic. I think park of the confusion lies in the confusion of language but I also think there is diagnosis confusion as well. The patient is trying to comprehend and deal with the diagnosis and is probably walking around in somewhat of a fog. Another medical term that find interesting is “standard of care.” Understanding this concept from multiple angles, doctor, patient or healthcare administrator, would be an interesting study.

    Comment by D Castagna | April 19, 2016 | Reply

  3. This is a unique approach to a highly salient topic of power and disparity in health communication and outcomes. Although I can’t say that I ever remember a doctor using Latin names for ailments in doctor-patient dialogues during my few years of medical social work, I do think that it is an interesting jumping off point for discussing the roots of utilizing jargon as a tool of power to inhibit or block communication that might be uncomfortable, difficult, or inconvenient for practitioners in the current healthcare system. I think you hit the nail on the head when you isolate Latin as a critical facet in building beliefs about qualification. My personal suspicion is that these beliefs, shaped by American medical education and practice cultures and more broadly the American healthcare system, contribute to a justification of communication riddled with inequity that may take part in racial and economic heath disparities. I look forward to reading this published work someday.

    Comment by C.M. Cassady | April 21, 2016 | Reply

    • P.S. I love the title!

      Comment by C.M. Cassady | April 21, 2016 | Reply

  4. Thank you for your comments everyone! Ashlee–there was an instant where there was a family in the room that made my job as an analyst even harder! There was quite a bit of confusion for the family, whereas the patient looked like they were completely aware of what was going on. Dan–I totally understand what you mean. There was a seemingly dense fog as patients were often just puzzled with what was going on with their bodies, and then it didn’t help when doctors explained the diagnosis in an incomprehensible manner. Cailtin– You would be surprised with some of the Latin terms that I found; these Latin terms are often hidden in plain context, but yes, I agree the communication issues do stem from racial and economic health disparities, as I saw more examples than I anticipated in my study.

    Comment by Kayla J. Hurd | April 25, 2016 | Reply

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