Science

What's in a name? Medical jargon sounds scary

Medical language often makes a disease sound far worse than it really is, say Canadian researchers who are studying how people understand and interpret disease.

Medical language often makes a disease sound far worse than it really is, say Canadian researchers who are studying how people understand and interpret disease.

The team at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., looked into the use of medical jargon on people's perceptions of their conditions.

Meredith Young, a graduate student in psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, and her colleagues surveyed 52 undergraduate students who were presented with medicalized terms for 16 conditions.

Examples included:

  • Erectile dysfunction versus impotence.
  • Hypertension versus high blood pressure.
  • Hyperhidrosis versus excessive sweating.
  • Androgenic alopecia versus male pattern baldness.
  • Hypertrichosis versus excessive hair growth.

Compared to the lay term, students considered the medical label of the recently medicalized diseases to be more serious, (rating an average of 4.95 on a 10-point scale compared to 3.77 for the common term), more likely to be a disease (2.47 versus 1.83 on a four-point scale), and more likely to be rare (68 versus 122 out of 1,000), the researchers reported in the journal Public Library of Science: One.

If people are told they have gastro-esophageal reflux disease, rather than chronic heartburn, they may overestimate its seriousness, which could affect how think they care for themselves, the researchers said.

Consumers should get 'the right set of terms': researcher

The findings show why it's important for health-care professionals to give patients both terms, said Young.

"Make sure they can give people something they can remember, is in a language they understand," Young suggested. "Let's face it, we're all going to go home and Google it, so we may as well have the right set of terms."

The results also have implications for corporate advertising and public policy.

"A lot of people have become critical of what is sometimes called 'disease-mongering' — or defining more and more conditions as diseases when they were previously just in the range of normal health, and a change in language certainly seems to accompany this," said psychology Prof. Karin Humphreys, one of the study's authors.

"We don't mean to dismiss any of the recently medicalized conditions we tested as trivial. Rather, because public understanding of these conditions is still in flux, they are an excellent place to examine how different terminology impacts this understanding."

Pharmaceutical companies often use medicalized terms to make people think they have a disease that needs to be treated with a lifestyle drug, Humphreys added.

The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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