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Changing the language of medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Spring


“From the moment we learn to speak the language of medicine,” said Pauline Chen, M.D., HS ’98, “we are taught to express ourselves in the passive voice.”

And that, said Chen, author of Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, has implications for patient care. Such phrases as “the patient presented … sustained a gunshot wound … pronounced dead …” turn patients into passive recipients of treatment rather than human beings actively involved in their care, said Chen, who gave the John P. McGovern Lecture for the Program for the Humanities in Medicine in January.

“The language we use in talking about our patients, the mother tongue of medicine, the passive voice, does little to foster the kind of support and communication integral to compassionate care. It obliges us to objectify the very people we seek to care for. And it provides an invisible but powerful hurdle to true patient-centered care,” she said. “The greatest of doctors are those who bypass the passive language they have inherited and replace it with the active comfort, true healing, and hope of compassionate, patient-centered care.”

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