Imagine a sci-fi story about two worlds divided by a force field. Humans live on one side; they look through the force field and see on the other side transparent containers that things happen in and to. At the end of the story, we discover that the “force field” is actually a mirror that makes people invisible–if a person does something, it seems to just happen without them, and if something happens to a person, it appears to occur in a clear container.
The mirror is medical writing–except that, for editors, realizing that it’s deleting people isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. The scientific literature of medicine presents a world of biomechanical fact in which patients are like jars that have things happen in them and to them with no people involved. The authors want to be scientific and objective, so they see subjectivity as a taint. Because they can’t actually remove it, they make it invisible. But real humans experience health problems and want real humans to do things about it.
Consider some typical examples:
- The patient was stabilized with zopiclone 3.75 mg tid.
- Illness in the individual was attributed to consumption of improperly prepared shellfish.
- Examination revealed a hypertensive subject with no obvious morbidity.
- Chest radiographs revealed progressive consolidation and a new right pleural effusion. A chest tube was placed in the left pleural space.
- This subgroup analysis suggests temsirolimus is indicated as first-line treatment in all renal cancer histological subtypes for patients with poor prognosis.
- Ergometrine is contraindicated in severe or persistent sepsis.
These examples use technical jargon, which medical writing is famous for and is a barrier of its own, but they also remove people. Of eight conjugated verbs, five are in passive voice and the other three have nonhuman subjects: “Examination,” “Chest radiographs,” and “This subgroup analysis.” The human with the problem is “the patient,” “the individual,” “a hypertensive subject,” or not even noticed–it’s like looking into a glass container to find situations, such as progressive consolidation, pleural effusion, and sepsis, and individual physiological details, such as the left pleural space. If you find this jarring, it’s because you’re the jar.
Even by leaving most of the jargon intact, we can turn away from the mirror and see the humans involved:
- We stabilized [X]’s condition with 3.75 mg of zopiclone three times daily.
- We determined that [X] was ill because they ate improperly prepared shellfish.
- When I examined [X], I found they had hypertension but no morbidity that I could detect.
- We did chest radiographs and found [X]’s lungs had progressive consolidation and a new right pleural effusion. We placed a chest tube in [X]’s left pleural space.
- On the basis of our subgroup analysis, we recommend you use temsirolimus as a first choice to treat people who have renal cancer of all histological subtypes and a poor prognosis.
- Do not use ergometrine to treat anyone who has severe or persistent sepsis.
For a layperson audience, we still need to translate terms such as hypertension and pleural space, but at least now we’re dealing with humans. And since health is a human issue that humans treat, you can’t really do it without them.
Join Copyediting on Thursday, May 17 for the Master Class “Translating Medicalese into English” with James Harbeck for a more in-depth discussion of editing medical texts to be more comprehensible. Registration closes Wednesday, May 16, 2018, at 10 pm ET.