Health terminology can sound complicated— even intimidating— to a patient and his or her family members, especially if they have little prior experience with major illness. Doctors and nurses throw about medical jargon that patients don't understand up front, and sometimes they don't explain them well.
If the words your doctor is using during your appointments sound like Greek to you, don't feel bad— many of them are. The language of medicine is based on many ancient Greek terms that aren’t easy for the layman to translate into English.
But we're here to help. October is Health Literacy Month, so we thought this week might be a good opportunity to review a few terms that seniors and their loved ones are likely to hear in the course of receiving geriatric care. You never know when a little foreknowledge might come in handy.
Here's a pop quiz.
1.) What is "pro-time?"
A.) The time of day when you should always drink a protein supplement shake, like Ensure, to get the maximum nutrition benefit.
B.) A measure of the amount of time it takes your blood to clot.
C.) The hours for which a medical professional bills your health insurance carrier for providing care.
Pro-time, or "prothrombin time" is an important measurement of your blood's ability to clot. Prothrombin is a clotting protein secreted by the liver. If your pro-time is low— whether due to liver dysfunction or because, like many seniors, you are taking anti-clotting medications like Coumadin (AKA warfarin) — even a simple cut or bruise can have serious consequences because you will not stop bleeding in a timely manner. This can cause anemia, weakness ad even death, if left untreated. If you take anti-clotting drugs, you should be having your pro-time checked regularly, to make sure that you are in a therapeutic range— not a dangerous one.
2.) What does kidney "dialysis" do?
A.) It removes toxins that build up in a person's blood when the kidneys are not functioning normally.
B.) It "dials back" the production of urine by removing excess water from the blood
C.) It prevents water retention in the body when kidneys are failing.
ANSWER: A and C.
A dialysis machine features a thin, plastic osmotic membrane— over which your blood is circulated using an IV line— and allows toxins to be filtered out. When a person is in renal failure (kidney dysfunction), he or she is no longer able to filter out poisons and concentrate them in urine for excretion. Although renal disease can cause water retention in the body (when the kidneys are not removing built up solids and salts, the body can be tricked into thinking it is dehydrated, so it holds more water than it should), and dialysis does not specifically treat this, it can help to alleviate dangerous water retention by reducing the solid concentration in the blood and allowing the body to back down from its tendency to hold fluid. Your kidney doctor (nephrologist) or primary care doctor may also prescribe a "water pill," like Lasix, to help your body shed excess fluids and prevent renal hypertension.
3.) What is "polypharmacy?"
A.) Getting your prescriptions from several different pharmacies,
B.) A pharmacy that stocks drugs on many different control schedules,
C.) Using / taking several medications and / or nutritional supplements on a regular basis.
Polypharmacy is generally defined as the regular use of 5 or more medications, be they prescribed, over-the-counter, vitamins, or herbal supplements. Many doctors consider polypharmacy to be a disease condition in and of itself, because drugs, vitamins and / or supplements can interact with each other in unanticipated ways and have negative consequences on a person's health. Many seniors take several medications for maintenance, or for the treatment of degenerative diseases, so they are particularly at risk. Being in polypharmacy status has been linked with an increased risk of catastrophic injuries (mostly due to falls), dementia, and even death. If you are prescribed several medications, or are using several over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, or nutritional supplements, or any combination of these substances, you should be staying in close contact with your primary care doctor or geriatrician, so that he or she can monitor for unintended negative drug interactions.
4.) True or false: Having diabetes makes a person overweight.
In fact, it's the other way around. A body mass index as little as 10% above ideal body weight can put a person at severe risk of diabetes — one of the most serious consequences of what is now being called "metabolic syndrome." Although patients who develop pre-diabetes can often reverse the trend by eating right, exercising regularly and losing weight, a full-blown diabetic must be carefully monitored, adhere to a special diet and check his or her blood sugar (glucose) regularly. Diabetes can cause blood sugar to spike too high, which can lead to limb loss, heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, multi-organ system failure and even death. Not to mention — being overweight in and of itself has been linked to an increased risk of many cancers.
Health literacy doesn't have to be low. Talk with your doctors and make sure they explain things in terms you understand.
Your health is dependent largely upon your ability to self-manage, self-report symptoms and your willingness to comply with treatment. If your doctor uses a bit of health terminology you don't understand, make sure he explains it to you.
- Repeat back— in your own words— what you understood, so that you can make sure you are both on the same page.
- Bring a notebook to your doctor appointments; write down any questions you might have, so that you can remember to ask them at the appropriate time.
- If you are in polypharmacy status, make sure you keep a list of the medications you take, the dosage levels, the frequency at which you are supposed to take them and the prescribing physician, so that a first responder or specialist will know what you are on.
Don't rely on an electronic medical record to tell your doctor the whole story; make sure you volunteer the information about your medical history and medication regimen up front and thoroughly. Your life may depend on it.