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Removing Medical Abbreviations Can Boost Patient Portal Understanding

A new study shows that removing medical abbreviations within patient health records can improve patient portal understanding and digital health literacy.

Medical abbreviations and acronyms have adverse effects on patient understanding of information during patient portal use, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health found.

This is happening as more patients access their health records than ever before.

In 2020, nearly 100 million people in the US accessed their health records through a patient portal. That number likely increased upon the implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act. The mandate called on medical providers to allow patients to access the notes written by their clinicians via a digital tool.

Patient portals are meant to benefit patients, giving them a window into which they can view their health data and be more involved in their own care.

However, misunderstanding of notes and inadequate health literacy could have profound implications for patient outcomes and wellness.

Automated expansion of the abbreviated terms could be a potential solution to increase patient understanding, the researcher stated.

In the study published in the JAMA Network Open, researchers involved English-speaking adult patients with diagnosed heart failure to evaluate the impact expansion had on the overall comprehension of 10 common abbreviations in health records.

Abbreviations and acronyms of various difficulty were included, such as hrs (hours), MD (medical doctor), BP (blood pressure), ED (emergency department), yo (year old), pt (patient), HF (heart failure), hx (history), HTN (hypertension), and MI (myocardial infarction).

Even though participants had great exposure to the health system, many lacked an understanding of common abbreviations. Comprehension of abbreviations such as MI or HTN was under 40 percent, much lower than clinicians initially estimated.

However, by expanding common medical abbreviations—essentially un-abbreviating them—researchers increased understanding from 62 percent to 95 percent.

“These findings suggest that post hoc or automated expansion of 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 researchers stated.

Improving health literacy has been a central task for researchers in the US as patients are not only confused by abbreviated terms clinicians use but also by the medical jargon.

A 2022 study highlighted that patients don’t always understand the results of a radiology test and often are left confused by their diagnosis or health status.

“For decades, radiologists have provided traditional radiology reports that are full of medical jargon and extremely difficult for patients to understand and decipher,” the lead author of the study, Michael P. Recht, MD, the Louis Marx Professor of Radiology and chair of the Department of Radiology at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement.

Researchers from NYU Langone found that video reports explaining radiology results improved patient health literacy and understanding of imaging test results.

“Our findings demonstrate that when radiologists take a more active role in patient-centered care and provide helpful information about a particular diagnosis in an easy-to-comprehend manner, both the patient and clinician benefit,” Recht said.

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