If your doctor sits you down and says, “You are suffering from pharyngitis, hyperpyrexia, cephalalgia, myalgia and tussiculation,” should you rush out and shop for a tombstone? No, you simply have the flu with a sore throat, high fever, headache, aching muscles and coughing. Assuming you aren’t scared to death by the diagnosis, you’ll survive.
According to Lois and Selma DeBakey, however, your doctor is suffering from serious hyperobfuscation. “A doctor doesn’t have to say ‘cephalalgia’ instead of ‘headache,’ ” Lois says. “When he uses the long word I think he violates the purpose of words—which is communication—and also intimidates the patient. Not many people will just say, ‘Doctor, I don’t understand.’ ”
The DeBakey sisters began trying to cure doctors of terminal gobbledygook a few decades ago at the urging of their brother Michael, the famed heart surgeon. “From reading so many scientific papers,” Selma says, “he knew there were a lot of doctors who needed help in their writing.” So Lois and Selma began holding two-day seminars at medical conventions around the world, instructing a total of 30,000 doctors in the alternatives to hyperverbosity. In 1962 they introduced what are believed to be the first accredited writing courses ever offered at a medical school—first at Tulane and now at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where Michael is chancellor.
The DeBakeys realize they are dealing with egos and must tread gently. “Telling people what’s wrong with their language can be devastating,” Lois says. “It’s almost like telling them they have bad breath.” So when they give physicians the treatment for medicalese—or, as they call it, “medicant”—the sisters use diplomacy and humor. They do not identify the doctors responsible for the verbal and written infractions they dissect in class. And when they come across a vivid medical malapropism, Lois and Selma illustrate it with tension-easing cartoons.
When doctors abandon medicant for simple English, the DeBakeys believe, the people they serve will be the prime beneficiaries. “If patients misunderstand instructions, they cannot cooperate satisfactorily,” Lois says. “The patient is paying the doctor not only for treatment, but to understand what’s going on.” Doctors benefit, too, for it is through medical journals written by other doctors that they learn about new ways to treat disease. Poorly written and confusing articles can be dangerous, they observe; failure to make sense can also be used to cover up faulty reasoning. Though Lois acknowledges that some scientific jargon is essential for precision, she believes that a doctor will occasionally use it “to conceal his ignorance or bolster his pride.”
Born in Louisiana some 50 years ago (both sisters coyly refuse to say precisely when), the DeBakeys were the children of Lebanese immigrants who had a lucrative chain of drugstores and other investments. The family house in Lake Charles was filled with servants and its driveway with cars. The two sons and four daughters stayed in college as long as they liked. Selma graduated from Sophie Newcomb with a degree in languages. Lois also earned a bachelor’s degree in math there, then went on to Tulane for a master’s in English and a Ph.D. in literature and linguistics. Today both sisters are professors of scientific communication at Baylor and serve as contributing editors and consultants for dozens of medical journals. Their personal reading goes beyond medical papers and the classics to include junk novels too. Slovenly language, they have discovered, is epidemic. “There’s a television ad on now that says its product is ‘more cheesier,’ ” Lois says with disgust. “And a bug spray that ‘kills bugs dead.’ Apparently,” she adds, “there are some sprays that will kill them alive.’ ”