Healthcare Lingo Hobbled by Political Correctness

Cheryl Clark, April 28, 2011

The terms we're supposed to use in healthcare are changing rapidly, but are they becoming too politically correct? It seems that in our passion to get it right, we may be getting lost in a semantic frenzy.

I was scolded last week by San Francisco surgeon Verna Gibbs for using a two-word phrase. I quoted her as saying providers need to find better ways to assure they don't leave surgical sponges in 'our patients.' That possessive construct should be stricken from the healthcare vernacular, she said.

Why? I asked, unnerved.

"Because we don't own people," the former co-chair of the UCSF Medical Center Patient Safety Committee replied.

Gibbs elaborated in an e-mail:

"Residents and medical students have been taught for generations that they have to think of the patient 'as theirs' and 'own' them. Vestiges of paternalism and slavery anyone? Is it right to even think that we can ever 'own' another human being?" She added that "these possessive constructs" make "it difficult for much needed team-based, multi-specialty complex care to proceed because of communication hurdles, as in 'What do you think you're doing to my patient?!' "

The reprimand was off-putting, but it got me thinking how the Affordable Care Act's penalties and incentives, talk of medical homes and accountability have set the stage for a linguistic battleground. We're starting to argue about individual words, but perhaps forgetting what the fight is about.

In his blog last week, New York Times' columnist Paul Krugman tossed a well-phrased grenade at the misguided trend to call people seeking care 'consumers' instead of what they are, 'patients,' and give them vouchers assuming they know exactly what they'd be buying.


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