Language matters. The words we choose can have far-reaching impact on those we interact with. This is arguably more true in medicine than in any other field.
Ryan Madanick wrote a recent blog post on the use of descriptor terms used by physicians in patient’s charts. He felt that the use of phrases like “is a very pleasant 52 y/o woman” or “is an unfortunate 16 y/o boy” is inappropriate. I agree. However, in response to this post one reader commented that he felt Dr. Madanick was nit-picking. He isn’t.
When I see such comments in colleagues’ note I wince. I was taught well by attending physicians who appreciated the power of language. I was taught to leave judgements like “pleasant” and “unfortunate” out of my notes. I was even taught not to use the ubiquitous term “complains of “or complaining of” (as in Mrs. Jones is a 43 y/o woman who complains of stomach pain”). When I was a medical student I had a trauma surgery rotation. The attending during that time was a wonderfully dynamic and caring man. One morning he brought his wife to rounds to listen in (this was pre-HIPAA). Afterwards he asked her what she thought of the experience. She was outraged. Outraged by our use of language. The patients who needed us most were “unfortunate”, “demanding” and “complaining”. Those we liked were “pleasant” and “stoic”. Those we did not were “difficult”. She asked how pleasant, fortunate and stoic we would each be if we were stuck in the trauma unit after a car accident left us unable to walk or, a bullet to the chest left us struggling to breathe pain-free? She volunteered that it was likely we would all be pretty darned demanding and complaining.
These words aren’t only judgmental and fault-finding, they are dangerous. Dangerous in their tendency to narrow our thinking. I had an experience early on that made this point loud and clear to me. Before seeing a patient one night I was handed the chart by a nurse who asked if I knew the child. I did not. She went on to tell me how difficult the parents were and how the kid was a “frequent-flier”. I glanced at the chart before seeing the child and read a few notes all with comments about this “unfortunate” child and her demanding parents. Several days later I learned that after seeing me, and returning to another physician she eventually presented to the ED in extremis. I sat down alone and went back over my visit. The only error I could find in my care was one of perspective. I entered her room biased. Biased by descriptive words used by the nurse and found in her chart that should not have been used. Did I miss her diagnosis because she was in my office too early in the disease process? Or did I miss it because I was viewing her as a complaining frequent-flier with difficult parents?
When we enter into care for a patient we need to approach them as if they are a tree of possibilities. The choices of diagnosis and the decisions around care should be narrowed not by our own bias and judgment but by careful medical thought. To speak of our patient’s with critical descriptors is not only rude but it is medically dangerous; doing so hurts them, and leaves us at risk as well.