Health phone lines hampered by public's poor understanding of the term 'unconscious'

Public understanding of medical terminology: non-English speakers may not receive optimal care 2000; 17:119-21

The public's poor understanding of medical terms may be a considerable drawback when using health phone lines, such as NHS Direct, out of hours call centres,and ambulance services.

A study in the Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine shows that one in two people did not always understand the meaning of the term "unconscious." Seven hundred patients in an inner city accident and emergency department were asked seven questions relating to loss of consciousness. These included whether people who are unconscious can stand up, breathe, talk, and hear. Most (83%) of those questioned said that English was their first language.

More than 80 per cent of respondents incorrectly answered the questions relating to whether someone who was unconscious would have their eyes open and would be able to hear. Around one in four answered one of the questions incorrectly. Those whose first language was not English were more likely to give the wrong answers, but understanding of the term among native English speakers was still poor, say the authors.

The ability to understand what is meant by the term unconscious is important, say the authors, especially when using services accessed by phone. These rely on correctly determining key facts from the caller. Level of consciousness is an important indicator of the severity of head injury and a range of other illnesses. And loss of consciousness is one of the criteria used to judge whether a patient merits a rapid response by an ambulance. The findings show the importance of using simple lay, rather than medical, terms, when talking to patients, conclude the authors.

The decision to send a patient for x-ray or even to admit them partly depends on information regarding consciousness levels, and so a misunderstanding could have serious implications, conclude the authors.


Contact: BMA Press Office
BMJ-British Medical Journal

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