Patients Are People, Too

Medical writing can be a bit … detached.

In many contexts, a formal, dry voice is appropriate. When you’re reporting the methods and results of research, there isn’t room for rhetorical flourishes or personal commentary. This is not to say that your audience should nod off to sleep after reading one paragraph—rather, the goal is to keep the tone neutral and communicate the information efficiently.

Sometimes, though, authors slip into a particularly alienating type of medical jargon. Take the following sentences:

1. The patient presented to the emergency department, complaining of chest pain. He denied a history of injection drug use.

2. Risk factors for exacerbation in asthmatics include exposure to tobacco smoke.

3. The subjects were randomly assigned to the treatment group or to the placebo group.

What’s the problem? The language in each is standard—you could flip open almost any medical journal and find similar examples. But look again at the words in number 1: Complain. Deny. Those terms are somewhat loaded, aren’t they? Physicians might use these terms reflexively, but careful writers (or editors) will try to use less judgmental language:

The patient presented to the emergency department with chest pain. He reported no history of injection drug use.

Those simple substitutions are clear and, more important, impartial.

Now let’s look at number 2. It’s easy to use shorthand when referring to patients, but doing so distances the speaker and the audience from the very important fact that the patient is not just a constellation of symptoms but a person. Don’t define or label patients by their illness. A simple switch solves the problem:

Risk factors for exacerbation in patients with asthma include exposure to tobacco smoke.

Finally, there’s my favorite, number 3. The word “subject” belies the fact that human beings gave informed consent to participate in the study. They’re people with free will and agency, not lab rats. Here’s a possible revision:

The patients were randomly assigned to the treatment group or to the placebo group.

And if the people involved in the study weren’t actually patients (that is, those who are ill) but rather healthy individuals? Easy solution: call them “participants.”

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