Patients More Frightened by Medical vs. Lay Terms

December 16, 2008

This article is included in these additional categories:

Analytics, Automated & MarTech | Pharma & Healthcare

The terminology that health professionals, marketers and communicators use to identify a disease or medical condition makes a big difference in how serious people think the condition is and can affect how patients seek treatment, according to research from McMaster University.?

The study, which was undertaken to see if there was a difference between medicalese vs. lay terms for common medical disorders, examined the terminology that used to describe ailments that have recently come to be known by more “medicalized” names. For example, impotence is now widely known as erectile dysfunction and excessive sweatiness is also known as hyperhidrosis.


Participants in the study were given a survey that included 16 disorders, eight of which were chosen because of the increased popular use of a medical label within the last 10 years (e.g., myocardial infarction vs. heart attack). The remaining eight were established medical disorders with both lay and medical terminology in popular use for more than 10 years (e.g., hypertension versus high blood pressure).

Recently Medicalized Terms Perceived as More? Serious

For established medical conditions, researchers found that it did not make a difference in perception if a lay term was used or if subjects were presented with the medicalized language.

However, when study participants were presented with the recently medicalized term for common conditions, the ailments were perceived to be more severe, more likely to be a disease and more likely to be rare, compared with the same disorder presented with its synonymous lay label.

“A simple switch in terminology can result in a real bias in perception,” says Meredith Young, one of the study’s authors and a graduate student at McMaster University. “These findings have implications for many areas, including medical communication with the public, corporate advertising and public policy.”

Serious Implications for Patients

The pattern of results also has implications for patients and can heavily influence how they take care of their own health, researchers found. If a patient is told that she has gastroesophageal reflux disease rather than heartburn, she might think she is more ill than she really is, the study found.

“We can see that there are a number of conditions where the medicalese term has – over the past ten years or so – been really rising in how often it is used, compared with the lay term for the same thing,” said Humphreys. “This is particularly important when you have lots of conditions that have recently become medicalized, some of them possibly through the influence of pharmaceutical companies, who want to make you think that you have a disease that will need to be treated with a drug.”

About the research: The study, “The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness,” was funded by the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada, and was designed to investigate the impact of medical terminology on perceptions of disease. It is published online in the open-access journal Public Library of Science: ONE.


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