Does language ambiguity in clinical practice justify the introduction of standard terminology? An integrative review

Authors

  • Hillegonda A Stallinga MSN, RN,

    PhD Student, Corresponding author
    1. School of Nursing & Health, Wenckebach Institute, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
    • Correspondence: Hillegonda A Stallinga, PhD Student, School of Nursing & Health, University Medical Center Groningen, Wenckebach Institute, Home postcode: FC33, PO box 30.001, 9700 RB Groningen, The Netherlands. Telephone: +31 503614284.

      E-mail: h.a.stallinga@umcg.nl

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  • Huib ten Napel MSN,

    Head
    1. WHO-FIC Collaborating Centre in the Netherlands, National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, The Netherlands
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  • Gerard J Jansen PhD,

    Lecturer and Researcher
    1. Master Advanced Nursing Practice, Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
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  • Jan HB Geertzen MD, PhD,

    Professor
    1. Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
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  • Pieter F de Vries Robbé MD, PhD,

    Professor
    1. Department of Medical Informatics, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
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  • Petrie F Roodbol PhD, MSN

    Professor
    1. School of Nursing & Health, Wenckebach Institute, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
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Abstract

Aims and objectives

To research the use of ambiguous language in written information concerning patients' functioning and to identify problems resulting from the use of ambiguous language in clinical practice.

Background

Many projects that aimed to introduce standard terminology concerning patients' functioning in clinical practice are unsuccessful because standard terminology is rarely used in clinical practice. These projects mainly aim to improve communication by reducing ambiguous language. Considering their lack of success, the validity of the argument that language ambiguity is used in clinical practice is questioned.

Design

An integrative literature review.

Methods

A systematic search of the MEDLINE (1950–2012) and CINAHL (1982–2012) databases was undertaken, including empirical and theoretical literature. The selected studies were critically appraised using a data assessment and extraction form.

Results

Seventeen of 767 papers were included in the review and synthesis. The use of ambiguous language in written information concerning patients' functioning was demonstrated. Problems resulting from the use of ambiguous language in clinical practice were not identified. However, several potential problems were suggested, including hindered clinical decision-making and limited research opportunities.

Conclusion

The results of this review demonstrated the use of ambiguous language concerning patients' functioning, but health professionals in clinical practice did not experience this issue as a problem. This finding might explain why many projects aimed at introducing standard terminology concerning functioning in clinical practice to solve problems caused by ambiguous language are often unsuccessful. Language ambiguity alone is not a valid argument to justify the introduction of standard terminology.

Relevance to clinical practice

The introduction of standard terminology concerning patients' functioning will only be successful when clinical practice requires the aggregation and reuse of data from electronic patient records for different purposes, including multidisciplinary decision-making and research.

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