When A Word Is More than Just A Word

Language is important. Every issue, situation, and event has language to communicate the story around it. Healthcare as an issue is no different. For example, “chronic illness” is a common hashtag, but you will rarely see the “illness” part used in my posts. That is intentional. I prefer "condition". There are negative connotations like victimization and helplessness that come with "illness". I try not to write to that.


Language may be part of what's wrong with the discussion around health and healthcare. During the last presentation at the Lown Institute Conference this year, Dr. Viktor Montori pointed out that we talk about healthcare as an “industry.” It’s such a cold, harsh word to describe a world whose goal is something as vibrant and vital as life. As Dr. Montori said, if doctors are not treating patients with kindness and care, they are missing the point.

I agree, and I am lucky that all of the doctors I see more than annually do treat me with care and kindness. But I would like to take Dr. Montori's concept a little farther – to the insurance companies, researchers, and yes, the politicians.

Healthcare is unique in the pantheon of political issues. There is no other that poses inevitable mortal risk to so many, which gives it intimacy and urgency. When we were going through the attempted repeal of the ACA last year (twice!), I stayed up to watch the votes because I would not be able to breathe easy until I was sure of the outcome. Even now, I wonder whether those in the administration who continue to chip away at it or those in Congress who won't bring stabilization bills to the floor consider that they are literally sentencing theirs or their boss's constituents to death. People die when they can't get the medical treatments they need.

I know I’m using harsh language, but this is reality and to use more diplomatic language is to lessen that reality. And when people are dying, what right have we to make it easier on those making such impactful decisions?

I think we can change that language. George Orwell said, "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

He was right. Language is powerful. The words we use reflect how we think. They can reveal whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist, their unconscious biases, and even where they've lived.

If we change the language we use to discuss healthcare, we can change the way we think about it. We can make it so that the people who make the decisions that affect our lives on such a fundamental level start seeing us not just as a policy or the price of a drug, but as us – people just like them, with lives and families, triumphs and setbacks, who feel love and hate and fear and curiosity. They are us but for faulty biology. If they can realize that, we will find their empathy, and empathy is what creates common ground.

It's going to take a while. The Oxford English Dictionary usually waits for 10 years of evidence of usage before it adds a word to the dictionary. But as many of us as there are, and as prominent an issue as healthcare is, I don’t think it will take that long. We should start small, maybe by deleting “industry” from the discussion. If we can stop talking about it in terms of profits and losses, we stop thinking about it in terms of profits and losses. Which might open the door just enough for empathy to fill the gap.