Researchers found in this randomized clinical trial conducted at three hospitals that expansion of 10 common medical abbreviations in patient health records significantly increased overall comprehension of the abbreviations, suggesting that post hoc or automated expansion of medical abbreviations and acronyms can improve patient understanding of their health information. This was published in JAMA.
Expansion of 10 common medical abbreviations compared with no expansion significantly increased overall comprehension of the abbreviations from 62% to 95%. These findings suggest that post hoc or automated expansion of medical abbreviations and acronyms can improve patient understanding of their health information, and may benefit ongoing national efforts to provide patients with electronic access to their own documentation.
Even in this population with substantial prior exposure to the health care system, comprehension of common abbreviations such as MI or HTN remained below 40%, much lower than clinicians initially estimated. Clinicians should be mindful that patient comprehension of abbreviations may be much lower than expected. Additionally, our data suggest that expansion is an efficacious standalone solution only for certain abbreviations and acronyms. Abbreviations with well-understood meanings while abbreviated (eg, hrs, MD) and poorly understood meanings while expanded (eg, myocardial infarction) did not benefit significantly from the intervention.
This study had several limitations. Ethnicity was imbalanced between study groups by chance; however, sensitivity analyses using multivariable models that controlled for study group and ethnicity demonstrated the imbalance did not affect our conclusions. We restricted our sample to 1 disease condition, which was necessary to isolate the main effect. Results may not generalize to other populations.