The words are familiar, but what does it mean?

The instructions for the email submission read:
“No native files will be accepted.”

Suddenly, I felt like I had a functional literacy problem. I understood the word “native.” I understood the word “files.” But I had no idea what a “native file” was. I didn’t even have a guess. I did not want to make a mistake, so I emailed the requestor and asked for a definition. I got a polite and helpful response.

For those of you who don’t know, when they said “no native files” they actually meant “send files in the PDF format.” (Or, I learned later from a friend, maybe a JPG would qualify.) A native file is a file that is still in the format of the program in which it was created, like a Word document or a Keynote slide show.

In this situation, I may have experienced what some of our patients sometimes feel like. The words sound familiar, but they have no idea what we are talking about. They have no idea what they are supposed to do. They don’t want to make a mistake — especially if it could physically hurt them. But it’s hard to admit you don’t understand, especially when it’s presented in a way that implies, “Of course you understand this. It’s simple.”

Another reason to ask patients to teach back what we teach them.

©2010 Fran London

6 Responses to “The words are familiar, but what does it mean?”

  1. Chuck Jones says:


    This post is right-on. Many medical professionals are like technical professionals and don’t make an effort to put things into “layman’s” terms and too often the patient or care-giver won’t do what you did, which is “ask” for clarification or understanding. We have a family policy that no one goes to the doctor alone. The second person is there to ask questions, seek clarity and write things down for discussion after the appointment. It has saved us from confusion or mistakes more than once.

  2. Nita Pyle says:

    I love the example, very telling. Thanks for all that you share.

  3. Thanks, Chuck and Nita.

  4. Susan says:

    Great analogy Fran. I love your blogs. I’ve got a folder in Outlook with all of them. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Kim Hume says:

    If you as techno expert didn’t know this…there was no hope for the rest of us! The same goes for our patients and families. Sometimes I am not 100% clear on what is expected of the patient after the physician comes in and I have been a nurse for 25+ years. We have to have the patient and family tell us in their own language what we have said, what they are to do, what are next steps. Thanks for sharing this great example.

  6. Kim, I consider myself to be a super user rather than a techno expert. Not knowing what a native file is proves I’m not a techno expert. Thanks for the comment.

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