Patient Understanding of Oral Healthcare Jargon

Eric T. Stoopler, DMD


June 19, 2015

Study Findings

The study participants were 53% female, and 76% identified English as their first language. Almost all (93%) perceived that they were fluent in English. On the multiple choice section of the questionnaire, the following proportions of participants correctly defined these terms:

  • Numbness: 79%

  • Buried tooth: 69%

  • Impacted tooth: 55%

  • Displaced fracture: 53%

  • Temporomandibular joint: 49%

  • Undisplaced fracture: 48%

  • Paresthesia: 23%

Patients who spoke English as a first language answered an average of 4.03 questions correctly, and those who did not speak English as a first language answered an average of 2.88 questions correctly.

In the free-text section of the questionnaire, the following proportions of patients correctly described these terms:

  • Broken bone: 58%

  • Mandible: 37%

  • Fracture: 18%

  • Plates and screws: 13%

  • Bite (occlusion): 10%

Patients who spoke English as a first language answered questions correctly more frequently compared with nonnative speakers, with the exception of the term "fracture."


This study focused on medical and dental terminology commonly used in the practice of oral and maxillofacial surgery. The results indicate that patients may not fully understand medical and dental terminology often used in the provision of care by oral and maxillofacial surgical specialists. These results may not necessarily be representative of patients of general dentists and other dental specialists; however, they do raise awareness among all dental professionals that appropriate communication continues to be a critical component of the doctor-patient relationship.

Oral healthcare professionals should not assume that the terminology used in their communications with patients is understood by all patients, and appropriate time should be devoted to explaining specific terms used with each patient. This is important for establishing clear lines of communication between doctor and patient and for patients to understand their diagnoses and the risks, benefits, and complications associated with treatment. This can have medico-legal implications when informed consent is involved.[2,3,4,5,6]

The results of this study further indicate that nonnative English-speaking patients may be at a communication disadvantage compared with native English-speaking patients in areas of the world where English is typically used as the first language. Owing to exponential population migration, many countries have substantial immigrant populations contributing to the richness of community diversity who will seek oral health care services.

In the United States, providing linguistically appropriate services for patients is a legal requirement for healthcare workers, including dentists.[7] Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is prohibited to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin by any individual or institution that receives federal funding for its program and activities.[7,8] In August 2000, Presidential Executive Order 13166 was issued directing all federal agencies that provide financial assistance to nonfederal entities to publish guidance on how their recipients can provide meaningful access to limited English persons and comply with Title VI regulations.[7,8] Every state has at least two laws that clarify or broaden the federal requirements.[8] Healthcare professionals can access resources for patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) through a Federal Interagency LEP website.



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