BMJ op-ed addresses language used by healthcare professionals to people with diabetes

Jack Woodfield
Fri, 23 Nov 2018
BMJ op-ed addresses language used by healthcare professionals to people with diabetes
The way healthcare professionals talk to their patients who have diabetes needs to change, according to a new op-ed.

Judith Hendley, Head of Patient Safety Policy at NHS Improvement, has had type 1 diabetes for 11 years and says the way she is spoken to about her condition is important.

Hendley's op-ed titled 'Are you well controlled?' has been published in The BMJand addresses the problems with some of the language used by healthcare professionals.

"It troubles me to be referred to as a 'diabetic' or for people with diabetes in general to be called 'diabetics'. Although this does not bother everyone, I feel this reduces me to being someone with diabetes and nothing more," said Hendley.

Hendley says that she has always been interested in the meaning and interpretation of words and language, and the "language used by healthcare professionals, the media, and others can make a big difference to how I feel about having a long term condition."

She said, "For example, l can be asked, 'Do you suffer from diabetes?' This makes me feel as though the person asking the question perhaps perceives me as the passive victim of my condition. It is hard to be passive with diabetes, and I 'suffer' far more when I have a cold. (It might be better just to ask - ‘Do you have diabetes?’)"

One of Hendley's bugbears is being asked if she is 'well controlled?’, wittily counterpointing the question by adding, "Whenever I'm asked the 'control' question, a part of me wants to reply, 'No, in fact you just can’t take me anywhere.'"

Hendley insists that she is supported by fantastic NHS diabetes specialists who understand that diabetes isn't the only thing happening in her life. But she adds that some doctors and nurses who are less experienced in diabetes can sometimes struggle to find the right language.

"I'd prefer to be asked questions like, 'How are things going with your diabetes?', 'Are you having any difficulties with your blood sugar at the moment?', or 'Is there anything that you're finding particularly challenging?'"

Hendley concluded: "It may seem overly precious to be so concerned about language in the overall scheme of things. However, as a healthcare professional, reflecting on and reframing the language you use while still making sure you get the information you need could make a big difference to how the people in front of you see themselves and their condition - and how they see you."
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