Have These Medical Terms Had Their Day?

Posted on  May 16, 2018


Like “gay-related immune deficiency,” “imbecile” and “catastrophic schizophrenia,” there are a large number of medical terms that have become obsolete. This could be because more information about a particular disease has come to light (“Bright’s Disease” was a term used for a number of kidney diseases that now have their own classification).

While someone with an intellectual disability can now be classified more accurately, the term idiot was used as recently as 2007 in the Californian Penal Code.

It could simply be an old-fashioned notion but in Victorian times, a woman who was considered to have a “case of the vapors,” we now know was actually certain to have mental or physical states such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder or even PMS, during which a sufferer lost mental focus. The concept of female hysteria has been banished to the history books.

Still, one could argue that there is a wide range of medical terms that ought to be banished, although what those terms are will differ from individual to individual.

In the UK, the British Medical Journal has published new advice that terms such as “good girl,” “big baby,” “delivered” and “labor ward” should no longer be used, saying that anything that could potentially cause stress to a woman giving birth is best avoided.

Recently, an article in The Guardian written by a woman who had a diagnosis of an“incompetent cervix” during pregnancy stressed that she felt she was made to feel she was to blame for her body’s failings and to feel guilty about her choices (she also pointed out that men experience “premature ejaculation” and not “inadequate testicles”).

That led to another opinion piece in The Conversation; a health care professional added his list of medical terms that he thought were now outmoded, including “diabetes,” citing that there are a number of types of diabetes, each distinct from the other.

Of course, some of the answers will provoke those who bemoan the “outrageous political correctness” of today’s society. From a medical position, no one can argue that the term referring to pregnant women over 35 as of “advanced maternal age” is correct. Using the term, however, can be insulting.

What is certain is that using terms such as this in front of patients is not considered prudent. So, too, is using excessive medical jargon. Patient-centric care requires involvement from a number of parties.

A scholarly opinion article that appeared in The Permanente aptly titled “Do Patients Understand?” also points out that limited health literacy remains a factor in errors and poor healthcare outcomes. It concludes that the choice of language made by a healthcare professional is important.

This comes back to terminology that may be medically correct yet, today, might be best avoided because it can cause some people to take offense. A patient may often reject medical advice if he/she feels slighted (here are some tips to deal with challenging doctor-patient interactions).

This got us thinking: what medical terms do YOU think should be banned or retired?  Are there certain words that can be considered medical jargon that you choose to simplify? With rapidly changing times, what do you consider to be “populous nonsense” when it comes to what people consider to be offensive words?


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