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General practitioner understanding of abbreviations used in hospital discharge letters

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The transition from hospital to the community is a potentially dangerous time for patients.1 It often involves a change in medical management, with potential for error. Hospital discharge letters aim to facilitate safe transition of patients into the community. To be effective, discharge letters must reach the general practitioner in a timely manner and contain easily understandable information. These are essential ingredients in effective continuity of care.

Deficits in discharge letters can contribute to a failure of information transfer. Studies have found high rates of omissions and errors in such letters.24 This contributes to errors in care after discharge. One study found that 49.5% of patients discharged from a large academic medical centre experienced at least one medical error relating to change of care on discharge.2

In this article, we focus on the potential danger of using abbreviations (shortened forms of words or phrases5) in medical communication. Abbreviations used in medical communications are either acronyms or initialisms. Acronyms use the initial letters of words and are pronounced as words (eg, ASCII, NASA); initialisms use initial letters pronounced separately (eg, BBC).5 Abbreviations are commonly used in…