Diabetes Language Matters
Diabetes care teams across Sutter Health are talking differently these days. That’s because the effect language has on patient care and patient outcomes can be profound. Endocrinologist Melissa Weinberg, M.D., affiliated with Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation and lead physician of Sutter’s Diabetes Clinical Improvement Community (DCIC), explains that as our U.S. healthcare system moves toward a more patient-centered approach, it’s necessary for providers to reexamine their words.
“When we started looking at diabetes care through a linguistic lens, we found unintended judgmental language across chart notes, patient education handouts, and even in our conversations. Beginning this November, to recognize American Diabetes Month, our teams are working on using person-first language whenever possible,” Weinberg says.
Talking the Talk
Person-first language puts a person before their diagnosis, describing what a person “has” rather than asserting what a person “is.”
“Despite even the best intentions, words can result in patients feeling like they are their diagnosis,” says Michelle Bradley, an exercise physiologist with Palo Alto Medical Foundation, who also serves on Sutter’s DCIC and is working to promote World Diabetes Day on November 14.
Referring to a patient as ‘diabetic’ can reinforce that as their identity, i.e. “I am diabetic.” Rather, Bradley says, it would be better to say “a person with diabetes” which puts the patient first and shows compassionate and encouraging language that may help enhance their outcomes and experience.
Stigma around certain language can impact care. According to two different studies (here and here), possibly because of perceived judgment from healthcare professionals, people with diabetes sometimes altered or underreported blood glucose levels or omitted information during provider visits.
Neutral Language Helps Remove Stigma
While a language movement in healthcare isn’t a new concept, there is greater emphasis to use language that empowers and supports. Here are four examples of phrases that Sutter diabetes care teams are working to incorporate in patient communications:
- “Monitoring blood sugar/glucose” instead of “Testing blood sugar/glucose”
- “A person who…” (takes medication 3/7 days, unable to access supplies, continues to eat ice cream before bed) instead of “Non-compliant, non-adherent, unwilling”
- “Managing, Working towards…” instead of “controlled, uncontrolled, sub-optimal”
- Use “Guidelines or Recommendations are…” instead of “You should, have to, need to, must”
“The way we speak affects the way we think and ultimately how patients feel,” says Weinberg.
More Than Their Diagnosis
Sutter Health is committed to improving healthcare outcomes for all, which includes communication with and about patients.
“When we change our language, we change the perception. Simple wording changes can go a long way in helping to build and strengthen patient relationships,” says Bradley.