With COVID-19 most severely impacting communities of color, the CDC now calls racism and the healthcare inequity it causes a public health threat. But what is less recognized is that the lack of healthcare equity often stems from biases deeply embedded in the very language of healthcare.
The language of healthcare consists of anything that is written, visual, spoken, or in any way communicated to healthcare professionals and patients, guiding the decisions they make. Bias in healthcare language can start with a phrase as simple – yet potentially as damaging – as this: “The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain.”
While this may be true for men, it’s not necessarily true for women, who typically experience different symptoms of a heart attack. Language can impact patient care by perpetuating misconceptions and supporting stereotypes, and can influence clinician decision-making of diagnoses or medication prescriptions. This bias may extend to age, sex, gender identity, ethnicity or race, weight, national origin, and more.
Bias impacts many aspects of the healthcare journey
Research shows that bias in spoken and written language influences clinicians’ perceptions of patients and can negatively affect treatment plans. A recent clinical study found that medical students who read a clinical description of a sickle cell patient that used biased language were more inclined to have a less positive view of the patient and were less likely to prescribe needed analgesics.
In fact, the language of healthcare needs to consider not only a person’s medical situation, but also their broader socioeconomic situation including social determinants such as environmental contributors, community assets, family and cultural traditions, and individual choices. This broader recognition can help dispel common assumptions and stereotypes that are integrated into word and image choices.
To start making inroads in battling bias, healthcare stakeholders must take an intentional and deliberate approach to systematically review for bias and then proactively become facilitators of change.
At Wolters Kluwer, we are committed to doing our part to change healthcare’s language across patient communications, nursing and medical education materials and solutions, medical journals and books, and workflow solutions so clinical decisions are based on bias-free evidence.
Raising awareness on healthcare inequity, making change happen
People should see themselves represented with spoken and written language that reflects their lives and acknowledges relevant differences. Healthcare stakeholders must address this issue, whether it’s in patient communications like brochures, videos, and social media or professional materials like journal articles. Even chart comments will ultimately impact the care that people receive.
Research shows people subjected to more stigmatizing language may feel shame, reducing their willingness to complete treatment plans or even seek treatment at all. This makes a difference in health outcomes and plays a central role in managing healthcare disparities.