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Disease’s medical names worry people more than lay terms

Patients get more worried if a disease is referred to in the medical jargon rather than in lay terms, according to new research.

Patients get more worried if a disease is referred to in the medical jargon rather than in lay terms, according to new research from McMaster University

The study, the second part of a larger study on how people understand and interpret disease, showed that labels used to identify a disease, whether it is common language or medical terminology, can influence how serious people think the condition is.

The researchers examined many recently medicalised disorders. For example, impotence is now widely known as erectile dysfunction; excessive sweatiness is also known as hyperhidrosis.

It was found that when study participants were presented with the medicalised term for these recently medicalised conditions, they were perceived to be more severe, more likely to be a disease and more likely to be rare, compared to the same disorder presented with its synonymous lay label.

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

In the study, participants were given a survey that included 16 disorders, eight of which were chosen due to the increased popular use of a medical label within the last 10 years (eg erectile dysfunction versus impotence). The remaining eight were established medical disorders with both lay and medical terminology in popular use for more than 10 years (eg hypertension versus high blood pressure).

“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. We don”t mean to dismiss any of the recently medicalised 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,” said Karin Humphreys, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.


The researchers found that the results pattern has implications for the patient-if a patient is informed that she has gastro esophageal reflux disease, for example, rather than chronic heartburn, she might think she is more ill.

One of the important implication is that patients” understanding of the condition heavily influences how they go about taking care of their own health.

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 medicalised language.


“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 to the lay term for the same thing. This is particularly important when you have lots of conditions that have recently become medicalised, 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,” said Humphreys.

The study is published online in the journal Public Library of Science:

First published on: 09-12-2008 at 05:06:24 pm
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