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The Power of Language to Shape Health Outcomes

Author
VP Jakub Tolar, MD, PhD

Language is a powerful tool. Not only as a form of expression, it can also be used to heal or harm.

In the context of healthcare settings, before a clinician even enters a room their perception of a patient is shaped by language in notes. There is a difference between “a patient declined” versus “a patient refused.” The words we choose impact our bias. The patient described using the latter phrase is more likely to be labeled as difficult, which may impact provider-patient interaction and follow-up in care.

Language can also shift responsibility. Take for example the sentence, “Speakers of languages other than English were more likely to delay their vaccine,” versus, “Speakers of languages other than English were more likely to experience delays to vaccination.” Rather than criticizing patients, the second statement is a critique of structural barriers and inequitable systems.

All of these examples are from the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants (NRC-RIM), a program of the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility (CGHSR) established in 2020 as part of CGHSR’s ongoing collaboration with the CDC and the International Organization for Migration. NRC-RIM works with organizations serving RIM communities that are disproportionately impacted by health inequities and aims to strengthen partnerships between health departments and communities.

We know that structural determinants of health are influential in health outcomes, but what about language as a structural determinant of health? Changing the words we use has policy, public health and clinical implications.

Imagine talking about people like they are sitting next to you in a room, how would that change the way you spoke about them? Language has a powerful influence on how we think about and value people. It is a way to humanize patients, grounded in dignity and respect, and improve health outcomes.

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