The importance of language when speaking to patients

labels 600 x 400
Keri Hutchinson, Podiatrist and Diabetes Prevention Programme Manager, Public Health Wales, reflects on the need to demonstrate awareness of language in healthcare practice

It is becoming increasingly important to demonstrate awareness of language in healthcare practice by not using stigmatising labels.

A study by Speight et al (2021) looked at how labels could potentially have impact. They argue that labelling someone as a 'person with diabetes' is unlikely to cause offence, but labelling them as 'a diabetic' could do so. Johnson-Dawkins et al (2022) explain this as potentially being 'dehumanising' and that persistent use of labels and inappropriate language could reinforce stereotypes and unintentional complicit bias that fails to appreciate basic humanity and lacks respect and inclusivity.

Clinicians can have as many as 150,000 service user interactions during a typical career (Institute for Healthcare 2011) and service users rely on their healthcare providers to interpret data and communicate vital information effectively for the optimum health outcome to be achieved (Dawkins et al, 2022).

This also extends to the wording used to describe management of conditions. 'Non-adherent' and 'poorly controlled' are frequently used in diabetes care for example, and a service user could be at risk of feeling 'told off' if exposed to this type of language in the healthcare environment. This wording could evoke feelings of shame and may cause mistrust, decrease satisfaction and increase the risk of errors in managing the treatment pathway.

The more that we allow the use of such terminology to be used, the more that we become habituated to the failure to see and recognise the humanity of those that we care for. Dawson (2021) stated that the language used should be considered in the same context as action and that the words we use determine the behaviours we display. Many researchers state that this approach to language should be described as 'person-first' and therefore what the person 'has' as opposed to what the person 'is'.

It is important to note that accepted terminology has shifted over time but it is our responsibility as healthcare providers to model and consider the language that is as inclusive and respectful at all times that we use towards our service users and colleagues alike.

Maya Angelou, the famous author and poet, describes words as 'things' and that we must be careful about their use and that we must honour the impact of what you say and how it may be perceived.