gin & kerosene (ugly_boy) wrote in linguaphiles,
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The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness

The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness from PLoS ONE discusses the results of a study testing 52 undergraduates' reaction to “medicalese” versus lay terms for both well-known and recently medicalized conditions. They define “medicalese” as terms with Greek or Latin roots like myalgic encephalopathy for chronic fatigue syndrome, and English but still formal or technical terms like erectile disfunction instead of impotence. Students were split into two groups, given a list of medical conditions (either lay or medicalese names) and ask to rate them in several categories including “disease representativeness— how likely the disorder was representative of a disease where 1 = definitely not a disease, 2 = probably not a disease, 3 = probably a disease, 4 = definitely a disease.”

This study demonstrates that the use of medical language in communication can induce bias in perception; a simple switch in terminology results in a disease being perceived as more serious, more likely to be a disease, and more likely to be a rare condition… The use of medical terms to describe such disorders as male pattern baldness (androgenic alopecia), chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalopathy), and impotence (erectile dysfunction disorder), to mention a few, appear to coincide with a trend towards the “medicalization” of society.

What surprises me most about this finding is that people perceive the conditions with technical designations as being less common. Perhaps this is because you don't hear these words tossed around every day like you do with heart burn, but I would have thought that you might see the opposite effect since use of medicalese often coincides with new drugs and an onslaught of advertising geared at the condition. It's hard to escape erectile dysfunction ads these days.

The results diverged somewhat when comparing the two sets of terms separately. In summary, the participants found that, compared to the lay terminology, the medicalese descriptions were:

Newly MedicalizedEstablished
more seriousless serious
more representativeno difference
less prevalentless prevalent

I find it particularly interesting that study participants thought the medicalese name for the more recently medicalized condition was more serious, while they thought the jargon for the established condition was less common. Even if you know what it means, myocardial infarction doesn't have quite the emotional pull of heart attack. For disease representativeness, I guess the established conditions are well-known by their common names, and still sound like a real disease when the technical term is applied. Both groups thought the medicalese conditions were less prevalent.

I've edited out the statistics to aid in readability but the full study details might be interesting to some. The full write-up is not terribly long.

Tags: english, research projects


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