New York, NY — Dr. Tatiana Prowell of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center joined forces with Dr. Don Dizon of Brown University medical school on a Medscape News panel that challenged many of the ways doctors talk about patients. Together, they illuminated some linguistic quick fixes that may fundamentally change the way HCPs approach the people in their care. 

In Prowell’s words, the problem they addressed is that “a lot of the language that’s baked into medicine reflects a time when medicine was more paternalistic, when patients were not equals or partners. That time is still reflected in our language, and I worry that it has the ability not only to make patients feel disrespected, but also to influence our own thought patterns.” Indications of this outmoded and sometimes disrespectful communication permeate many different health care realms.

For instance, when a doctor says “the patient progressed,” what is meant—seemingly paradoxically—is that a person’s tumor got worse. In some similarly confusing jargon, doctors will state that a patient “failed their treatment,” but, as Prowell says, what’s actually meant by this is that “our process failed or our medication failed.”

We see something similar at play in clinical trials, too. Instead of saying that patients “failed screening,” Prowell suggests we say that “eligibility criteria failed the patient.” Similarly, Prowell notes that “we have offices of human subjects research,” and she encourages professionals to stop using the word “subjects” like this, as it can be objectifying and belittling.

She went on to relate an anecdote in which a presenter at ASCO used the word “volunteers” to refer to clinical trials participants, and he had to use the word a number of times before the audience realized whom he referred to. But, audience members recalled their moment of realization as the presentation’s most powerful moment. Prowell expressed her hope that “volunteers,” which she thinks is a more appropriate word here, catches on. “People who join our clinical trials are our partners in drug development,” she said.

Dizon preempted what might be many people’s knee-jerk responses to Prowell’s ideas and the whole premise of this discussion. He asked Prowell how she’d respond to people who say, “It's as if you're trying to introduce political correctness into the oncology world, and that makes me uncomfortable.” Her response was edifying and firm.

“First, frankly, our opinions about this don't matter. The patient's opinions matter. So if we believe that we are making some exceptional allowance to not hurt patients' feelings, well, we should,” she said. “If we feel as though we're going above and beyond so that we're not misunderstood, we should. So to anyone who objects to it on those grounds, I would say that I don't really care, because what matters is what the patients are hearing and what the patients feel when we say these things.”

Why This Matters

“Patient-centricity” is no longer the buzzword it once was: even the word “patient” itself is headed out of vogue, with some HCPs trying to say, for example, “people with cancer” instead of “cancer patient.” 

The Marketing Microstrategies from Syneos Health describe some of the newest ways in which successful brands are breaking through and earning consumers’ attention in 2019. Of the 40 Microstrategies, number 12 is “Pivoting from Patient-Centric to People-Centric,” and it spotlights recent moves by pharmaceutical leaders to reorient themselves not just around patients but around patients as regular people. Brands that succeed will be those that don’t just provide treatment, but can talk to people as people—and cater to their wholly human need for hope.  

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.