Clinicians have the privilege of laying healing hands on patients, but often their first interaction is talk, not touch. Because medicine intersects with people’s personal experiences, speech that conveys respect, understanding and compassion takes on special value in this field. For all its scientific rigor, the practice of medicine is a human practice, and research indicates that when health care consumers and clinicians empathize with each other, the result of care improves. Therefore, the ideal we should be aiming for with patients is inclusive language — language that does not depreciate a person’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, ability or socioeconomic status.
In fact, using inclusive language is important in all fields: teaching, business and others.
Continuing education resources are poised to help us approach that ideal. We already impress the importance of continuing education on many people so they can keep pace with their fields. Why not refine professional development to include information about changes in social communication standards? In medicine, this can improve health outcomes just as advancements in medical science do. In teaching, it can create stronger bonds with students, making them more open to learning. In business, it can show all stakeholders your level of commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Connections to society
In the past decade, the US and the rest of the world have faced a reckoning over forms of discrimination that have festered in our institutions with the tacit consent of the majority. The terms systemic sexism and systemic racism are now in everyday use. This shift in public consciousness accelerated during key events — particularly the #MeToo movement, the killing of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic, with its unequal outcomes between racial groups.
Now, more than ever, it is important for professionals to recognize potential biases in the language they use with others, be they patients, students, customers or colleagues. We should make it a point to educate ourselves about changing social norms so we can build trust and honor the dignity of others.
A step toward healing
Social conventions will continue to evolve, and we will never reach a point where we can be certain of our approach with a given person. Lifelong learning is essential. More than 20 years ago, I was among the first medical students to take Doctoring — a multidisciplinary course incorporating communication skills, ethics and social concerns in clinical decision-making at the David Geffen School of Medicine. The principles I learned in the course are still true today, but certain details have fallen aside.
While some fear and frustration may be associated with social shifts, the rewards of a commitment to lifelong learning and growth, in my experience, far outweigh this difficulty. Maintaining proficiency in social and ethical concerns can improve your relationships with others and keep you sharp, ready for whatever professional advances and social requirements the future holds.
Like the body’s healing responses, speech that makes people feel understood and confident has the power to bring about systemic benefits.
Words matter: Guidelines for inclusive language
Here are some general guidelines for using inclusive language in an empathic manner.
- Choose person-first language. Instead of saying, “a diabetic patient” or “an autistic student,” which turn a disease or characteristic into a label that defines the person, put the person first. Refer to “a patient with diabetes” or “a student on the autism spectrum” to emphasize the person as separate, and more important, than a single trait or diagnosis.
- Eliminate the term complaint and replace it with concern. This change conveys your supportive partnership with another person. You can share their concerns about a problem, but the complaints are theirs alone.
- Avoid gender-specific descriptions. For example, it is more inclusive to say, “Patients often experience light cramping early in pregnancy” than “Women often experience light cramping early in pregnancy.” In the classroom, teachers can avoid “The boys are having trouble understanding this book” by saying “Some of the students are having trouble understanding this book.”
- Avoid the negative connotations of a failed class or a failed treatment. Even when not intended, students or patients may interpret this to mean that they are the failure. Instead, try “The scores were not as high as we’d hoped” or “The treatment did not work as we hoped.” This implies a partnership, with shared interest and responsibility in the outcome.
- Do not assume any sensitivity training you received in school is sufficient. Like medicine and teaching approaches, social norms and language change over time. It is important to stay current with what people need, expect and deserve.
Charmian Lewis, M.D., works on Obstetrics & Gynecology content for Rosh Review, a Blueprint Prep company. Health care professionals can take Rosh Review’s free Inclusive Language Quiz or take advantage of continuing education opportunities.