Medical jargon alters our understanding of disease

A new study just published in PLoS One reports that simply using technical-sounding labels for newly popularised medical conditions changes our understanding of the condition itself, leading us to think it is more serious and more less common.

The study is interesting as it speaks to the debate about disease mongering – the over-medicalising of problems that were previously considered unfortunate but normal parts of life.

The research team, led by psychologist Meredith Young, gave 16 descriptions of medical conditions to two groups of participants.

Eight were conditions that were previously not considered medical disorders but have been ‘medicalised’ in the last 10 years with new technical sounding names common in press reports. For example, impotence is now commonly described ‘erectile dysfunction’ while baldness has been labelled ‘androgenic alopecia’.

The other eight conditions were established medical disorders that have medical and everyday names that are both widely used in the popular press, such as stroke (cerebrovascular accident) and heart attack (myocardial infarction).

One group of participants was given descriptions of the conditions with the common names, and the other group was given the technical names, and each were asked to rate how serious it was, how prevalent it was and whether they thought it was a real disease or not.

For the recently medicalised conditions, the technical label led people to rate it as more serious, more less common and more likely to be a real disease.

For the established conditions, the technical name didn’t effect how the condition was perceived.

Simply giving a condition a technical label seems to change our understanding of the condition itself, making it seem more of a risk and more medically significant.

These findings follow-on from another interesting study from Young, where she found that diseases are thought to be more common and serious the more they’re mentioned in the media.

Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively ‘worse’ by a separate group of participants.

We now know that our beliefs about disease and understanding of illness has a significant effect, not only how we cope with the experience, but how the disease takes its course.

Pharmaceutical companies often promote the benefits of their product, but they also regularly attempt to change our understanding of the problem itself, so the use of their medication seems the most sensible option.

However, there are many other players in the public discussion of illness and certain ideas about causes, symptoms and treatments are often pushed by people because it fits in with other agendas they have.

This is particularly relevant for scientific theories and it is no accident that many of the most significant public medical debates in recent years have been over the acceptance of certain explanations – such as the role of the MMR vaccine in autism, the role of neurotransmitters in mental illness, the role of genetics in obesity.

There is no explanation of illness independent of culture and an understanding of how popular ideas influence our personal medical beliefs is an essential part of understanding medicine itself.

Link to study on medical language and perception of illness.
Link to study on press reporting and perception of illness.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of the PLoS One editorial board.

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