Political Correctness in Healthcare: The Line of Best Fit

For those who are unfamiliar with the term “political correctness”,  the term does not have anything to do with politics. It is surprisingly referring to the use of language that is inoffensive or insensitive to any group of people. It stems from the philosophy that everyone should be treated equally, fairly, and with dignity. This may sound like common sense; there is no reason to use a complicated term to describe something obvious. Some applications of political correctness can be seen when describing job titles and disabled individuals. Job titles involve the replacement of gender-specific words like “policeman” and “postman” with “police officer” and “mail carrier”. In terms of describing people with disabilities, words such as “handicapped” and “mentally disabled” have been replaced with terms “impaired” and “intellectually disabled”.

Political correctness is controversial because critics deride it to be ridiculous and far-fetched. For example, the politically correct term for “short”  is “vertically challenged”. Also, terms such as “visually impaired” and “hearing impaired” are used to describe deafness and blindness. Physicians point out how the use of those terms make it impossible to differentiate between those who are hard of hearing and partially sighted from those who are entirely deaf and blind. Dr. Carone, a neuropsychiatrist, expresses that political correctness and sensitivity training interferes with diagnosis and treatment in healthcare (1). One of the most common issues of political correctness for healthcare providers is in dealing with obesity.

A study conducted research on how parents perceive the terminology used by doctors to describe obesity in children of ages 2 to 18. The findings indicated that words including “fat”, “obese”, and “morbidly obese” are considered undesirable by parents, who claim that they provoke stigma and blame towards the patient (2). Thus, they will feel less motivated to lose weight. It was suggested that “unhealthy weight” and “weight” were the most desirable words and the term “overweight” was somewhat acceptable. Dr. Carone stresses that terms such as “obese” and “obesity” have a scientific basis in the medical community while “unhealthy weight” does not. Moreover, “unhealthy weight” is a vague term since it can refer to both underweight and overweight. While colloquial terms can feel demeaning for some who are receiving diagnosis, the biggest problem that can arise with substituting euphemistic phrases for scientific terms is that they can de-emphasize the seriousness of the patient’s condition.

It is interesting to note Dr. Carone’s opinion:

For example, for people who do not like the stigma of being called “anorexic” should we just say that they are “too skinny?” Some people do not like the stigma of being a cancer patient. Should we just say they just have “really bad cells?” What about people who don’t like the stigma of major depressive disorder? Should we just say they have “the blues”? Where does it stop? (1)

Among the healthcare community, there are some who oppose Dr. Carone’s perspective. Referencing the same study mentioned above, Dr. Bell, a member of the Yale Medical Group, expresses that sensitivity in talking about obesity with patients is an “important enough topic to be taught in medical school”. He states that using the “right words” can “engender some trust”. He is confident that patients will be able to have more engaging discussions about obesity and their next steps if the physician respects their sensitivity to certain terminology.

Another debate over political correctness in healthcare has to do with the words that are used to address the patients – whether to call them “patients” or “clients”. Although it seems like there is a simple answer – to call them “patients” – the debate arises in healthcare settings where people visit for so-called “no insurance coverage” treatments. This may include dermatology clinics, dental clinics, and long-term health care centers. Recent Dermatology Nurses’ Association Convention addressed this issue and brought up the definitions of both terms (3). It defined the term “patient” as rooting from the Latin word meaning “sufferer”, and the term “client” as rooting from words “to lean”, making its definition “one who is the recipient of a professional service”.

People’s views were divided on this topic, with a number of nurses arguing that a patient will always be a patient since they have the duty to care for them whether they have insurance or not. Some nurses working in dermatology clinics claim that they use the word “client” to refer to those visiting the clinic since they are participating in fully elective treatments.

Truly the line of best fit is hard to draw at this point, as healthcare is becoming a part of consumerism. It is yet unclear which direction of skewing will best benefit the population, and more research needs to be conducted on this matter.

Written by Julie Cho / Image Source


  1. Carone, D. A. (2011, December 12). How political correctness interferes with healthcare. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2011/12/political-correctness-interferes-healthcare.html

  2. Santore, M. (2012, July 1). Choosing words wisely when talking to patients about weight. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from http://medicine.yale.edu/news/article.aspx?id=6382

  3. Bonsall, L. (2016, April 13). For whom do you care – patients or clients? Retrieved November 27, 2017, from http://www.nursingcenter.com/ncblog/april-2016/for-whom-do-you-care-%E2%80%93-patients-or-clients