A study of low-income men found that most did not understand basic medical terms such as “erection.”

Clinicians should speak colloquially when discussing prostate cancer with low-income men because most of them do not understand basic medical terms, according to a new study.

Kerry L. Kilbridge, MD, MSc, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, led a team that interviewed 105 men at two low-income clinics. Fewer than half understood the terms “erection” or “impotent.” Only 5% understood “incontinence.”

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Patients tended to recognize roots but not related terms. For example, 70% understood urine and 79% understood urination, but the majority did not understand the terms “urinary frequency” or “urinary function.”

“We found that many commonly used medical terms were completely unknown to a large proportion of patients,” the authors observed in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (2009;27;2015-2021).

Even if educational materials, consent forms, or quality-of-life questions were read aloud to overcome literacy barriers, they might still be misunderstood, the researchers noted.

Clinicians may be misled about their patients’ symptoms and outcomes as a result, they noted.

The patients ranged in age from 40 to 89 years (average age 58 years), and 91% identified themselves as black. Two thirds of the group had not completed high school. Fewer than half read above sixth-grade level, and 27% were illiterate or read at third-grade level or below.