'Impotence' is better than 'erectile dysfunction'

When doctors use formal medical terms to describe conditions rather than common words patients become more worried about their health problems, shows a study by McMaster University.

The research, which was published in the online journal Public Library of Science: ONE, found that medical terminology makes conditions sound more severe to patients than lay terms. They also sound rarer.

Participants were surveyed about 16 disorders, including high blood pressure versus hypertension; excessive sweating versus hyperhidrosis; impotence versus erectile dysfunction; and gastro esophageal reflux disease versus chronic heartburn. The scientists found that when patients are diagnosed using the medical term, they may think they’re sicker than they actually are.

The study highlights the importance of good clear communication between doctors and patients, especially as the amount of time allotted to a single appointment is squeezed as a way of managing patient loads. I’ve written about the connection between physical illness and a patient’s mental state.

It’s also relevant because doctors are using “medicalese” more than ever (check out the rising incidence of GERD, also known as heartburn, here). Critics call this “disease-mongering”—giving common conditions that have been historically accepted as normal variations in health more serious status. Some suspect that’s been helped along by pharmaceutical giants, “who want to make you think that you have a disease that will need to be treated with drug,” says Karen Humphreys, one of the study authors.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.