Abbreviations and acronyms are commonly used in medical literature, presentations and medical notes. An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase used chiefly in writing to represent the complete form, e.g.
UK for the United Kingdom. An acronym is an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something, pronounced as a word, e.g.
AIDS for acquired immuno-defi-ciency syndrome. For the purposes of this study – where the difference is not of any significance – the term ‘abbreviation’ is used to mean either an abbreviation or an acronym. Abbreviations are useful because they simplify, facilitate, and accelerate communication. They have become the shorthand of medicine.1
However, the overuse of abbreviations can be a source of irritation, misunderstanding or medical errors.2
There are guidelines for the use of abbreviations in journal articles. Instructions to authors for the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery
(British volume) and Spine
(Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) state that the use of abbreviations should be kept to a minimum: ‘the style should be simple and direct, free from ambiguity and jargon, and with minimal use of abbreviations’,3
and authors should ‘write out the full term for each abbreviation at its first use unless it is a standard unit of measure’.4
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors states:5
‘Use only standard abbreviations; use of non-standard abbreviations can be confusing to readers. Avoid abbreviations in the title of the manuscript. The spelled-out abbreviation followed by the abbreviation in parenthesis should be used on first mention unless the abbreviation is a standard unit of measurement.’
A previous study of medical and general surgical journals6
showed that 43% of articles contained unfamiliar abbreviations. A review of paediatric notes and handover sheets found the use of abbreviations was wide-spread and not well understood.2
Some of this misunderstanding may stem from the fact that abbreviations may have multiple meanings.7–11
Reading uncommon abbreviations takes our brains longer as we have to decode the abbreviation through its parent words.12
This can be a particular problem if listening to a conference presentation where the listener has to assimilate information quickly.
There are no published works that look specifically at the use of abbreviations in the orthopaedic literature or that compare different types of orthopaedic literature. The aim of this study was to determine whether the guidelines regarding the use of abbreviations in orthopaedic literature were being adhered to. We also wanted to compare the use of abbreviations in general orthopaedic and spinal journal articles. The senior author's experience of conference presentations and orthopaedic literature was that abbreviations were overused. We, therefore, analysed how healthcare professionals in local orthopaedic departments interpreted and remembered abbreviations using a questionnaire.