eNewsletter - March 2021

Behavioral Health Partners

Making a Commitment to Using Patient First Language 

The COVID-19 pandemic, a divided political landscape and economic uncertainty of the past year have shined a light on the essential services healthcare workers provide.

As we close out March and National Social Work Month, we recognize the critical role social workers and other mental healthcare professionals have played throughout history and, in particular, this past year during the second pandemic — the mental health pandemic. 

According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, social work is one of the fastest growing professions. Currently, there are 700,000 social workers in the U.S., according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). By 2028, 800,000 people are expected to be employed as social workers.

“The nation needs more social workers as it continues to deal with entrenched problems that have stressed our society, including systemic racism and the coronavirus pandemic,” the NASW said in statement about National Social Work Month and its theme “Social Workers Are Essential.” “Social workers are on the front lines, helping people overcome these crises.” 

As social workers and healthcare providers continue to step up to meet the mental health demands during this time, we also are shifting how we look at our patients. By committing to using person-first language, we put the focus on the whole person rather than letting the diagnosis define the patient.

To use a medical example, instead of saying “Mary is a diabetic,” we may say “Mary is a 52-year-old teacher with diabetes.” Or, rather than saying a patient seeking mental health treatment is schizophrenic, we can say “Dan is a father of three children who manages his schizophrenia with medications.” Putting the person first in the language we choose to use can be essential in a patient’s care. 

“The language we use about patients, even behind closed doors with one another, impacts the way we treat patients,” says Dr. Kelly Ryan, director of social services and doctoral training at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, part of Edward-Elmhurst Health. 

Putting the diagnosis first can create a negative image, or stigma, Dr. Ryan says. A change in language can help put the patient first and foster compassion. “If you’re looking at the whole person and focus on the person’s strengths, they are more likely to get better and have positive outcomes,” Dr. Ryan says. 

To help foster person-first language, consider how you describe your own patients and if the language you use limits them to their diagnosis or if it helps them be viewed as a whole person. If you hear others referring to patients by their diagnosis (for example, “he’s an addict”), consider politely correcting the language with “Oh, you mean he has an addiction,” or “He has [insert the diagnosis].” 

As we work together to heal, consider the power of your words and the essential role that words can play in your patient’s journey to healing.