Words that Don’t Work, like… When I go to my “Doctor,” I am a “Patient,” not a “Health Care Consumer”

I intentionally keep politics out of my posts on this blog as much as possible.  It is becoming difficult – politics permeates every facet of life these days.  But this one was too important to ignore.  It comes from Paul Krugman’s New York Times column earler this week, Patients Are Not Consumers.  Here’s the key excerpt:

But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”

Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.

What has gone wrong with us?

First, the obvious:  I do not want to think of myself as a “consumer” of health care, I want to think of myself as a “patient” going to see my “doctor.”   And, yes, I do have “my doctor,” not my health care provider.” 

We have known for a very long time that the labels, the names, we use, shape so much more than just our vocabulary.  The words we use shape our understanding in every part of life, even create reality.  And I think Frank Luntz is onto something with his idea that there are words that work – but, there are also words that don’t work.  And we need to reject those words, jettison them from our vocabulary, and stand strong against them as they creep in all around us — which I try to do in my own conversations and presentations.

“Consumer” should never replace “patient” when it comes to me and my “doctor.”  This is just one example of a word we should jettison.  There are a few other words that don’t work for me:  like “faith community,” instead of “church, synagogue/temple, mosque.”  I do not attend my “faith community,” I go to “church.”  In fact, I go to church at the First Methodist Church, not the First Methodist Faith Community.

In Words That Work:  It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Frank Luntz wrote: 

Words that work, whether fiction or reality, not only explain but also motivate.  They cause you to think as well as act.  They trigger emotion as well as understanding. 

In the book, he quotes Winston Churchill:

“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”  

I agree with this.  And “doctor” is shorter and better than “health care provider,” and “church” is better than “faith community.”

Famed rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke put it this way:

“… language does our thinking for us.  Language choices not only reflect individual disposition but influence the course of policy as well…  Because the terms we use to describe the world determine the ways we see it, those who control the language control the argument, and those who control the argument are more likely to successfully translate belief into policy.”  (quoted by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman).

I suspect you’ve got your own list of words that don’t work.  And I suspect, if we put our minds to it, we could come up with quite a few words that don’t work; words that simply are not working for us.

And let’s start here — let’s remind those making decisions in Washington that we are not “consumers” of “health care providers,” we are “patients” going to see our “doctors.”

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