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Stop using ‘outdated’ language that disempowers patients

Many ‘deeply ingrained’ phrases blame or belittle individuals and can damage the therapeutic relationship, write the authors of an article in The BMJ

Many ‘deeply ingrained’ phrases blame or belittle individuals and can damage the therapeutic relationship, write the authors of an article in The BMJ

Healthcare workers are being asked to change ‘outdated’ language that makes patients feel like children and disempowered, including phrases such as ‘send’ them home or ‘take’ their history.

An article published in The BMJ suggests that language that ‘belittles or blames patients’ is overdue for a change, and should be swapped for words that empower individuals.

Phrases

Many ‘deeply ingrained’ phrases blame or belittle individuals and can damage the therapeutic relationship, write the authors of an article in The BMJ

Picture: iStock

Healthcare workers are being asked to change ‘outdated’ language that makes patients feel like children and disempowered, including phrases such as ‘send’ them home or ‘take’ their history.

An article published in The BMJ suggests that language that ‘belittles or blames patients’ is overdue for a change, and should be swapped for words that empower individuals.

Phrases such as ‘poorly controlled’ illness or ‘treatment failure’ should be scrapped as they push the blame onto patients and assert the authority of the nurse or doctor, the authors write.

Use the right language to build ‘collaborative relationships’ with patients

University of Cambridge fellows Caitriona Cox and Zoe Fritz argue that simple words and phrases used by healthcare staff can affect the relationship between healthcare professional and patients.

Referring to diabetes treatment, they write: ‘There is an authoritarianism, for example, in talking about patients not being “allowed” certain foods by their doctors.

‘Although patients can find such language upsetting or frustrating, some also adopt a childlike narrative, describing the effect of being “naughty” or “good” on their blood sugars, or recounting being “scolded” by healthcare professionals.’

They add that many phrases are ‘deeply ingrained’ in medical practice but healthcare staff must work to use language that ‘facilitates trust and supports shared decision-making’.

‘Language that belittles, infantilises or blames patients runs counter to the collaborative relationships we are trying to foster through initiatives such as shared decision-making,’ they write.

Simple phrase changes that nurses and other healthcare staff can make

  • ‘Denies chest pain’ could be ‘reports no chest pain’
  • ‘Patient failed on X’ could be ‘X was not effective for the patient’
  • ‘Patient refused X’ could be ‘patient declined X’

‘Battle’ language around cancer can be damaging, charity says

Cancer support charity Maggie’s chief executive Dame Laura Lee, previously a clinical nurse specialist in Edinburgh, agreed that language associated with cancer can irk patients.

‘We have been hearing for years that people with cancer are fed up of the “battle” language used around them – phrases like “she fought cancer” or “stay strong” can make people feel despondent,’ she said.

‘We also know how important language can be to someone’s experience of health services, and can make a huge difference to the way they approach and respond to their treatment and diagnosis.’


Read the BMJ article on language

Presenting complaint: use of language that disempowers patients


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