Nancy Hicks's picture

Healthcare Not Immune to PC Language


“Politically correct” has become a powerful cultural meme that transforms our language and the way we communicate.  It can signal a level of respect for a group of people – “garbage collectors” became “sanitation engineers”, and Whole Foods calls their employees “team members”.  Marketers have been quick to inflate the value of their products with new terminology.  The downscale “used car” became “pre-owned”, and so much more appealing.

One would think that healthcare language, anchored in the solid world of science, would be immune to PC terminology.  While no one has found a better way to say “lipids” which is already an improvement over “fats”, the language of healthcare continues to  morph in response to public sensibilities and scientific insights.

A recent article in the Kansas City Star reported the death of a prisoner and said his organs “were to be harvested before release of the body”.  This provoked an angry response from a reader who noted that the term “harvested” was offensive and that “retrieved” and “recover” are more appropriate terms for the process.  A director of organ transplantation at The University of Kansas Hospital, one of the premier programs in the country, weighed in by saying that “organ procurement” was the term they preferred.  The PC aspect of this is related to a real political issue.  “Harvesting” is used in news coverage of China’s unethical removal of organs from prisoners.

Language sometimes softens healthcare terms to diminish our fears or to make a condition more accessible.  Groups monitoring drug safety have to report “adverse events” which can cover everything from a mild reaction to death.  Not many people would argue that death is an “adverse event”, maybe the most adverse, but it seems a lot less alarming when reported that way.

The clinical term for overactive bladder is “urge incontinence”, but it is easy to see why drug companies popularized the former term.  It is far more understandable from a consumer perspective and likely to resonate with someone who has the condition.  Similarly, impotence has been replaced with ED (erectile dysfunction) not only within healthcare circles but in popular culture.  Such changes in language help de-stigmatize a condition and promote better understanding of it.

Healthcare terminology, like all language, is not static.  “Bipolar” replaced “manic depressive”, though both terms describe the condition.  Sometimes the language of clinicians replaces popular terms.  We no longer talk about “really fat people” – they are “morbidly obese”.  There is something more respectful to the individual in this scientific term.

Some changes, however, go beyond what is more sensitive to what is just plain silly.  Do we really have to call balding men “follicularly challenged?”  It is quite possible that a wide swath of the population could not identify a “follicle” if it was one of their own.  This term violates the principle of clarity which should be a central tenet of language change.

Few areas are as dynamic as healthcare, and because of that language will continue to evolve.  As healthcare communicators we have a special obligation to cull through what is trendy and “of the moment” to what is solid and enduring in our communications.   And yes, PC is fine in healthcare as long as it advances clarity and sensitivity to special audiences.