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When Your Language Gives Away That You Don’t Have a Clue

Posted Jan 31 2013 8:19am

I was doing a clerkship in Medicine way back in my third year of medical school, and had this memorable exchange with one of the hospital’s Distinguished Professors during a case presentation on morning rounds:

Me (nervous):  This is a 72-year-old man admitted with chest pain. He has a past medical history notable for a heart attack 2 years ago …
Distinguished Professor (clearly annoyed):  Paul, now that you’ve been in medical school for a while, you can start using the appropriate medical terminology — especially during case presentations. We don’t say “heart attack” — we say “myocardial infarction”, or the abbreviation “MI.” When you use the wrong term, you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Me (now feeling around 2 inches tall):  Can I press the rewind button on this day and go back 10 or 15 minutes?
Distinguished Professor (confused):  What do you mean …
Me (now feeling 1 inch tall):  Never mind. This is a 72-year-old man admitted with chest pain.  He has a past medical history notable for a myocardial infarction 2 years ago …

At least that’s how I remember it — it’s possible I didn’t say the joke about the rewind button, but I certainly was thinking it. Was he too harsh?  Perhaps — after all, most people (even doctors!) know what a heart attack is, but I suppose I offended his sophisticated medical sensibilities and sounded incompetent. Oh well.

Anyway, I was reminded of this unfortunate event with a recent e-mail that came my way:

Dear Dr. Sax,

I am writing to invite you to submit a chapter on HIV Infection and the AID Syndrome [bolding mine] for our proposed on-line medical textbook, [insert name of latest UpToDate  challenger here]. We have already assembled a substantial roster of specialists …

Now I have no idea whether this latest web venture will succeed, but in at least our world, they’re not off to a very good start. Because you can bet good money that the woman who emailed me is one of the few inhabitants of planet Earth who has used the bolded phrase above — “the AID Syndrome” — in place of the full abbreviation “AIDS.”

Makes “heart attack” sound like sophisticated medicalese at its most rarefied!

And while “AID Syndrome” is technically correct — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome = AIDS = AID Syndrome — it sure does sound like she is completely clueless.

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