August 24, 2021

Abbreviations in Medicine – confusing or helpful?

Abbreviations can be convenient, save time and can fit a higher volume of words into a restricted space. However, abbreviations can also cause confusion and miscommunication, which should be avoided at all costs in healthcare. This week, we explore the issue of abbreviations in medicine and consider how we can successfully insert them into communications.

For many professions, abbreviations are necessary to save time and to communicate quickly with others. Medical professionals, who often work in fast-paced and high-pressure environments, often rely on abbreviations to save time. However, a high price can be paid for their use. A recent study found that abbreviations used in medicine are sometimes misunderstood, misread, or interpreted incorrectly. The study also found that the use of abbreviated language in medicine resulted in longer time periods required to train medical professionals. Other problems caused by abbreviations included: wasted time, as medical professionals had to chase up meanings, delays in patient care, patient confusion, and even occasional patient harm.

Neil M Davis, who wrote a book about medical abbreviations said, “I published my first book of medical abbreviations, ‘Medical Abbreviations: 1,700 Conveniences at the Expense of Communication and Safety’, in 1983. To expand the list of abbreviations, I contacted hospitals and requested lists of abbreviations that were used at their facility. One of the problems I noticed was that one abbreviation could have two or more contradictory or ambiguous meanings, which can create dangerous communications.”

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Abbreviations are a prime example of how language is an ever-growing, evolving thing. While the continuous development of language allows for communication across a wide range of scenarios, the ways in which it can be interpreted and used differ from individual to individual. This can result in what Neil M Davis calls “dangerous communications”. For example, abbreviations may be used slightly differently from hospital to hospital, which can cause confusion for a medical professional as they have to essentially “learn the lingo” of each individual hospital. Not only could this cause confusion and potential mistakes, but it makes the communication between hospitals or the process of transferring hospitals less seamless for medical professionals.

In cases such as this, abbreviations may seem to cause more problems than they solve. But are there potential solutions for this issue?

Some suggest:

  • Not allowing medical abbreviations – removing the use of medical abbreviations would be very difficult to enforce, however, some believe that moving away from the use of abbreviations, or at least reducing reliance on it, can solve many of these issues.
  • Create a national list of standard abbreviations – a national list of approved abbreviations may cause a more uniform use of them throughout healthcare settings.

Experts also advise that medical professionals should avoid abbreviating drug names completely and take extra care to clarify any abbreviated terms that they are unsure of.

At WeType our transcription team are familiar with most abbreviations but are occasionally stumped by one they have not heard before. We encourage all of our clients to reduce their use and instead use full words to maintain accuracy.

Do you think abbreviations are helpful or do you think they aren’t worth the hassle?

Let us know in the comments below.

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