Frequency, comprehension and attitudes of physicians towards abbreviations in the medical record

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Abstract

Aims

Abbreviations are common in the medical record. Their inappropriate use may ultimately lead to patient harm, yet little is known regarding the extent of their use and their comprehension. Our aim was to assess the extent of their use, their comprehension and physicians’ attitudes towards them, using ophthalmology consults in a tertiary hospital as a model.

Methods

We first mapped the frequency with which English abbreviations were used in the departments’ computerised databases. We then used the most frequently used abbreviations as part of a cross-sectional survey designed to assess the attitudes of non-ophthalmologist physicians towards the abbreviations and their comprehension of them. Finally, we tested whether an online lecture would improve comprehension.

Results

4375 records were screened, and 235 physicians responded to the survey. Only 42.5% knew at least 10% of the abbreviations, and no one knew them all. Ninety-two per cent of respondents admitted to searching online for the meanings of abbreviations, and 59.1% believe abbreviations should be prohibited in medical records. A short online lecture improved the number of respondents answering correctly at least 50% of the time from 1.2% to 42% (P<0.001).

Conclusions

Abbreviations are common in medical records and are frequently misinterpreted. Online teaching is a valuable tool for physician education. The majority of respondents believed that misinterpreting abbreviations could negatively impact patient care, and that the use of abbreviations should be prohibited in medical records. Due to low rates of comprehension and negative attitudes towards abbreviations in medical communications, we believe their use should be discouraged.

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