Demeaning language of the NHS betrays patients

The UK’s leading patient advocate, Harry Cayton, has condemned the use of demeaning language in the NHS in an editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Mr Cayton, who is the Department of Health’s National Director for Patients and the Public, argues that some language used in the health service shifts blame to patients.

“We cannot create a patient-centred health system unless we change the language we use,”
said Mr Cayton.

“Language is at the centre of the relationship between patients and medical professionals and how we talk to and about patients is crucial.”

Mr Cayton argues that negative language is largely associated with older patients and reflects an embedded ageism in society.

“The use of the term ‘frequent flyer’ in hospital management and the media to describe elderly patients regularly entering hospital is demeaning. It trivialises a patient’s condition and implies that they are enjoying being in hospital as though it were a trip or holiday,”
said Mr Cayton.
“People with Alzheimer’s disease are simply reduced to a ‘Dement’.”

“This is not a matter of political-correctness-gone-mad but we must not dehumanise patients. Hospital managers and professionals in clinical care have a responsibility to their patients which must include courtesy.

“The health service must challenge those not using appropriate language in respect of patients in the same way that racist or sexist language is not tolerated. Language reflects and shapes our thinking and therefore our behaviour.

“The NHS has a long way to go before patients and customers are treated with the respect they deserve,”
Mr Cayton said.

Dr Kamran Abbasi, editor of the JRSM, added:

“The culture of the NHS is such that language and behaviour are learnt from senior clinicians. It is their responsibility to ensure that clinical teams mind their language. Some people will say that this is irrelevant to clinical care, but as soon as you start using inappropriate terms to describe patients you cease to see them as human beings. Modern healthcare requires greater sensitivity towards patients.”


The alienating language of health care [PDF 101k]

‘The alienating language of health care’ by H Cayton is published in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

JRSM is the flagship journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. It has been published continuously since 1809. Its Editor is Dr Kamran Abbasi.

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