It’s time to stop using the language of war in health care


Summer is heating up, and so is the election rhetoric. In this year’s campaign for the White House, when it comes to verbally attacking each other, neither candidate seems to recognize any limits. Personally, I think this behavior reflects poorly on both candidates.

In heath care, it’s almost impossible to escape this negativity. The media devours and thrives upon it. In our hospitals, televisions in the doctor’s lounge, cafeteria and in individual patient’s rooms are ablaze with 24/7 cable network coverage.

The effects are demoralizing. The discussions that follow are almost never productive.  I find it hard to believe how any of this can be conducive to recovery, let alone healing. As a physician, I’m left wondering: How can we lead the way forward with a different kind of language, message, and behavior?

The language of war

Recently, I read an exceptional post by Dr. Robert Pearl titled, “Why Doctors Should Stop Speaking the Language of War.” In his post, Dr. Pearl makes an excellent case for how the language of warfare has infiltrated the culture of medicine and how it negatively affects our ability to move forward.

“The language of war threatens to take us in the opposite direction, towards chaos and increased animosity.” – Dr. Pearl

Dr. Pearl’s post struck a cord with me. As a medical student, I remember the residents complaining about how they were “tortured” with pages from the floor nurses. As a resident, my colleagues and I would commiserate about how, while on call, we got “slaughtered” by the emergency room.  I once had a partner who proudly proclaimed he “defended the faith” by deflecting an admission to the medicine service. Recently, I was invited to serve on a board of “urologists in the trenches” for a prominent trade publication.

Foreign language

Medicine, like the military, has a hierarchical structure. Practitioners are faced, daily, with a variety of stressors and struggles. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why medicine has adopted this type of language. In my experience, the words we choose to use on a daily basis reflect our underlying perception of where we fit into a specific organization or a greater culture.

“Terms drawn from war corrode the foundation of patient care and produce a victim mentality in physicians and staff, inhibiting improvement and change.” – Dr. Pearl

As surgeons, when we use language commonly associated with conflict, I wonder what it says about us, and our profession? Does this language signal to our patients we believe we are commanders, comrades, servants or, worse, casualties in the art of healing?

Speaking a different language

It’s difficult sometimes to see the forest through the trees. As we watch our presidential candidates give their speeches on television and social media, it’s clear: the words we chose and use matter.

“Going forward, physicians must stop speaking the language of war, and replace it with words that represent the values and mission of medicine, words like ‘healing’ and ‘teamwork’ and ‘recovery.” – Dr. Pearl

As an individual physician, I can’t change the language our future leaders choose to use. I can, however, change the language I choose to use. In this way, I have the power to create meaningful, positive, and lasting and change. I hope our future leaders change their verbiage and change their tone. At the end of the day, however, meaningful change begins with me.

Brian Stork is a urologist who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr. Brian StorkHe can be reached on Twitter @StorkBrian.

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