Language Use

December 9, 2019

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Anchor lead: What’s the impact of words physicians choose on patients? Elizabeth Tracey reports

When you hear the word obese, does that sound different to you than fat? How about non-compliant versus forgets to take medicine? Such phraseology is important in physician interactions with patients, according to Tatiana Prowell, a breast cancer expert at Johns Hopkins.

Prowell: I worry about the shortening that we use when we use disease first language instead of patient first language. So we say the study enrolled a thousand diabetics instead of a thousand people with diabetes. Or we say the patient progressed instead of the tumor progressed. What we mean is the tumor got worse but we say the patient got worse. We conflate the patient and her disease. And so I worry about the message that that sends to our patients. I worry that that makes them think that we are thinking about them first and foremost as their disease.   :30

In a recent op ed, Prowell argues that among the many tasks today’s doctors must take on, sensitivity to choice of language and intentional communication is needed, especially in electronic medical records open to patients. At Johns Hopkins, I’m Elizabeth Tracey.

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