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How Biomedical Language May Affect Patients' Understanding of Hypertension

August 10, 2015

Despite major advances in treating hypertension, more than half of individuals with this condition remain in poor control. A fundamental issue may be that patients do not fully understand the meaning of "hypertension" or its cause, leading to poor adherence to medications and limiting other self-management behaviors. A recent article by HSR&D investigators Barbara Bokhour, PhD, and Nancy Kressin, PhD, suggests that the word hypertension may be misinterpreted by patients to mean too much tension, thus patients may believe that hypertension is more a psychological issue than a physiological one, and that all they need to focus on is reducing their stress. However, stress reduction is not an effective primary treatment of this condition. Drs. Bokhour and Kressin admit that it would be unrealistic to banish the term "hypertension" in favor of "high blood pressure," but recommend that healthcare providers discuss with their patients what the condition actually involves - and that they explain how elevated blood pressure is and is not related to stress. They also write that "paying attention to patients' understanding of biomedical language is critical to ensuring that providers have the greatest possible impact on the health of their patients."

Bokhour B and Kressin N. What Is in a name? How biomedical language may derail patient understanding of hypertension. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. July 2015;8(4):452-454.