The economisation of the language of medicine

Two American physicians recently wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about how they were forced back to school again learning another foreign language. In medical school they learned that measles was called rubeola and itching pruritus. Today they learn that patient is called “customer” (or “consumer”) while doctor and nurse both are called “providers.”

The authors guess that spiralling health care costs drive this “economisation” of their professional language. Economists and politicians believe that the solution to the cost problematic lies in the industrialisation and standardisation of health care. Hospitals are to be run as modern businesses and the traditional language of medicine modified with terms that correspond to the professionals’ new factory functions. Above all, the patient relation is updated as a customer relation.

The two doctors see the economisation of their language as reductionist. It neglects the psychological, spiritual, and humanistic aspects of the relation to the patient. Precisely these aspects made medicine a “calling,” they write. The economisation of medicine concerns not only language, however, but also the organization of work. Doctors are less free to make their own decisions based on their clinical judgment. They are forced to follow manuals written by experts, as if they were on the factory floor following the chief engineer’s scheme.

When I read the article I thought that an alternative way of formulating the problem is in terms of means and ends. The authors’ note that clinical care always had a financial aspect, but the treatment of the patient still was in focus as the doctor’s primary goal. When profit took overhand as the goal, it was seen as a betrayal of the doctor’s calling and worth ridiculing, as in Moliere’s plays. The economisation of medicine turns the relation of means and ends inside out. The end of treating the patient is snatched out of the doctor’s hands and become a means towards other, economic ends. The analysis of the alienation this means is old and it is tempting to hear echoes from another century in the article’s finish, which I cannot avoid paraphrasing: “Doctors and nurses of the world, unite! Through off the language that demeans both patient and professional and that threatens the heart of medicine!”

Simultaneously, one must admit that new generations grow up that do not seem alienated in this new world, but act as self-evident consumers of health care.

Pär Segerdahl

We have a clinical perspective : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

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