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Tricky Health Vocabulary

What health-related words do your students have trouble with? Are there some that you could use help in explaining? Let's share some ideas!

And here are some resources to help:

These thesauri (how's that for a weird vocab word!) were made for doctors so they could learn to use less jargon with patients. But they are also good resources for teachers and adult learners. 

What stories can you share about dealing with this kind of vocabulary?


glamont1's picture

I am currently working on a project for the Minnesota Department of Health Oral Health Program gathering oral health data for a one-source web portal for providers, the public and other stakeholders.  Part of the problem I've come across is translating data for the layperson.  Recently I have found it difficult to describe studies to the public such as what a cross-sectional study is, limitations of the data, etc...  I am trying to locate an epidemiology glossary for the layperson but have not yet been able to find one.  Does anyone know if one exists?  Or other resources that could help me to describe epidemiological studies and statistical terminology?


Julie McKinney's picture
One hundred

Hi Genelle,

This would be a really nice resource to find! It would help to encourage us all to explain studies and statistics to people, including the prevalence of health issues and basic risk. I would bet that in many cases, we avoid describing studies and explaining statistics to populations for whom it would seem too challenging. But it is something we should try harder to do. In adult learning theory, they have found that adults need to know the "why" of the concept that they are learning. While many statistics are thrown at us by public health campagns as an impetus to change our health behavior, how much of the time do these statistics have meaning for people?

I am going to cross-post this to the Math and Numeracy Group.

I also suggest that you post this same question to the IHA Health Literacy Discussion List. There may be some on that list who could help.

Thanks for bringing this up!


Julie McKinney's picture
One hundred
Genelle and Others,

Here are some responses to this same question from the IHA Health Literacy Discussion List:


When beginning a discussion on oral health or other health topics; it is prudent to first explore sites that already provide that information to the public.  This site provides information to parents and early education providers relative to children's oral health 

Have you explored this web page? There are links within for lay readers.  This one tends to focus on individual health topics, but might be worth a look as the entire web site is divided between professional and consumer health.  Here's the health statistics topic from Medlineplus:  Scroll down the page to see if there are any links of value. 


One resource I use is Trochim's Research Methods: the Concise Knowledge Base. I wouldn't say it's a plain language glossary, but he explains research methods and statistics in a way that's accessible to a layperson like me, so that I can put it into plain language. One other limitation of this book is that it doesn't have a lot of detail on medical research - its focus is social research, but epi usually involves more social research anyway.

As an example, in the book's glossary he defines a "cross-sectional" study as "A study that takes place at a single point in time." When he discusses it in the text, he says "In effect, you are taking a slice or cross-section of whatever it is you are observing or measuring."

The book is available for order but you can also check his website:


Perhaps the Cochrane Collaboration has something helpful in their glossary or styleguide.


One resource I really, really like is "Making Data Talk: A Workbook" from NCI,

The author (or one of the authors) is David Nelson. Matter of fact, I liked this workbook so much that I interviewed him for a Health Literacy Out Loud (HLOL) podcast. Here's a link to listen. There also are lots of related resources listed on his HLOL webpage,