Professionals need ongoing training on inclusive language

(Image credit: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

Clinicians have the privilege of laying healing hands on patients, but often their first interaction is speech, not touch. Because medicine intersects with people’s personal experiences, a discourse that expresses respect, understanding, and compassion takes on particular value in this area. For all its scientific rigor, the practice of medicine is a human practice, and research indicates that when health care consumers and clinicians empathize with each other, the outcome of care improves. Therefore, the ideal we should aim for with patients is inclusive language — language that does not belittle a person’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, ability, or socioeconomic status.

In fact, using inclusive language is important in all areas: educationbusiness and others.

Continuing education resources are ready to help us move closer to this ideal. We are already making many people realize the importance of continuing education so that they can keep pace with their fields. Why not refine professional development to include information about changes in social communication norms? In medicine, this can improve health outcomes, as can advances in medical science. In teaching, this can create stronger bonds with students, making them more open to learning. In business, it can show all stakeholders your level of commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Links with society

Over the past decade, the United States and the rest of the world have had to deal with forms of discrimination that have permeated our institutions with the tacit consent of the majority. Terms systemic sexism and systemic racism are now in common use. This shift in public consciousness has accelerated during key events – particularly the #MeToo movement, the murder of George Floyd, and the COVID-19 pandemic, with its uneven outcomes across racial groups.

Now more than ever, it is important for professionals to recognize potential biases in the language they use with others, whether patients, students, clients or colleagues. We should strive to educate ourselves about changing social norms so that we can build trust and honor the dignity of others.

A step towards recovery

Social conventions will continue to evolve and we will never reach a point where we can be certain of our approach with any given person. Lifelong learning is essential. Over 20 years ago, I was among the first medical students to take PhD — a multidisciplinary course integrating communication skills, ethics, and social concerns into clinical decision-making at the David Geffen School of Medicine. The principles I learned in the Course are still true today, but some details have been overlooked.

Although some fears and frustrations may be associated with social change, the rewards of a commitment to lifelong learning and growth, in my experience, far outweigh this difficulty. Maintaining a grasp of social and ethical concerns can improve your relationships with others and keep you sharp, ready to meet all the professional advances and social demands that the future may bring.

Like the body’s healing responses, speech that makes people feel understood and confident has the power to bring systemic benefits.

Words Matter: Guidelines for Inclusive Language

Here are some general guidelines for using inclusive language in an empathetic way.

  • Choose the person’s language first. Instead of saying “She has diabetes” or “He has autism,” which turn a disease or characteristic into a label that defines the person, put the person first. Refer to “a patient with diabetes” or “a student on the autism spectrum” to emphasize that the person is distinct and more important than a single trait or diagnosis.
  • Delete term complaint and replace it with worry. This change reflects your supportive partnership with another person. You may share their concerns about an issue, but the complaints are theirs alone.
  • Avoid gendered descriptions. For example, it is more inclusive to say: “Patients often have mild cramps in early pregnancy” than “Women often have mild cramps in early pregnancy”. In class, teachers can avoid “Boys have trouble understanding this book” by saying “Some students have trouble understanding this book.”
  • Avoid negative connotations of a failed class or one treatment failure. Even when this is not expected, students or patients may interpret this to mean that they are failing. Instead, try “The scores weren’t as high as we expected” or “The treatment didn’t work as we expected”. It involves partnership, with a shared interest and responsibility in the outcome.
  • Don’t assume that the sensitivity training you received in school is enough. Like medicine and educational approaches, social norms and language change over time. It’s important to keep up to date with what people need, expect and deserve.

Charmian Lewis, MD, works on obstetrics and gynecology content for Rosh Review, a Blueprint Prep company. Healthcare professionals can take Rosh Review Free Inclusive Language Quiz or take advantage of continuing education opportunities.


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