Retiring the R-Word: The Right Thing to Do
By Steve Levine

 Words_Matter

Quiz time. Which of the following words or phrases are now officially in the American Medical Association’s “not-preferred” category? (Apologies ahead of time if this Type-K question elicits stormy med school flashbacks among physicians of a certain age.) 

  1. Retarded
  2. Junkie
  3. Aid in Dying
  4. Schizophrenics 
  1. A only
  2. both A and C
  3. both B and D
  4. A, B, and C
  5. All of the Above 

The correct answer, obvious to those of you who know the difference between “person-first language” and “person-centered language” is No. 4. The AMA House of Delegates last month adopted policy that would put the first three phrases on the verboten list for physicians. When it comes to “schizophrenics” – as opposed to “people with schizophrenia” – the answer is, it depends. Typical Type K question, eh? 

Kudos to the delegates for recognizing that words, especially in the mouths and pens of powerful people like physicians, really do matter. 

Good words, the right words, spoken and written, inspire, inform, enlighten, uplift. The wrong words confuse, hurt, intimidate, discourage. 

Take “mentally retarded.” Clinically, it may be an accurate but overly broad term to describe a person with an intellectual disability. That’s yesterday. The R-word is toast. Parents should no longer have to hear a doctor say, “Your child is mentally retarded.” 

Some argue that opposition to that phrase is just part of parental delusion over the intellectual shortcomings of their son or daughter. That may be some of it. But when a word becomes a generic putdown and a nasty schoolyard taunt, it’s time to retire it from a physician’s lexicon. 

I’m proud of the Texas Medical Association’s Medical Student Section, who got the TMA House of Delegates to recommend that physicians use the term “intellectual disability” instead of “mental retardation” in clinical settings. Then they worked with the Texas Delegation to the AMA to win approval on a national scale. 

Briefly, on some of the other word-choice decisions the AMA house made:

  • Stigmatizing terminology such as “abuse” and “junkie” in the language of addiction, the delegates agreed, interferes with good patient care and puts extra potholes in the road to recovery. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, speaking at the AMA meeting, said Americans should be “wrapping our arms around” people with substance use problems, not demeaning them.
  • Supporters of “aid in dying” lost out as part of a decision, finally, that upholds AMA’s ethical guidelines against physician-assisted suicide. “Despite its negative connotations, the term ‘physician assisted suicide’ describes the practice with the greatest precision,” the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs wrote. “Most importantly, it clearly distinguishes the practice from euthanasia. The terms ‘aid in dying” or ‘death with dignity’ could be used to describe either euthanasia or palliative/hospice care at the end of life, and this degree of ambiguity is unacceptable for providing ethical guidance.”
  • The delegates also put the kibosh on such titles as “nurse anesthesiologist” and “podiatric physician.” That’s an important tool in our fight against scope-of-practice creep. And, of course, a physician is not a provider. 

Finally, there’s the question of labeling people by their disease or disability. I’m hoping “the gall bladder in room 418” is something you no longer hear in a hospital ward. The concept of person-first language has been around since the early ’80s. By saying, “Mrs. Smith is a person with diabetes” rather than “… is a diabetic,” you acknowledge that there’s more to her than that particular diagnosis. She’s also a carpenter and a mom and a soccer coach, and maybe even schizophrenic. Person-first language, which the AMA uses and is part of TMA’s official style guide, also does away with phrases like “cancer victim” and “wheelchair bound.” 

The problem is, some groups of people with disabilities – like the deaf – and some individuals, don’t like person-first language when it refers to them. They identify with their condition and want that word to come first. And so, we’ve come to person-centered language, which “focuses on each person’s individual preferences rather than using generalizing terms for a group when referring to a disease state or disability.” That’s the approach the AMA house adopted in June. 

So back to the quiz. “The schizophrenics” might be a phrase you avoid. Or not.

Photo: Taro Taylor

Last Updated On

July 03, 2019

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Steve Levine

VP, Communication

(512) 370-1380
Steve Levine

A former statehouse reporter, political press secretary, and state agency spokesman, Steve Levine has directed the Communication Division at TMA since 1997. He oversees Texas Medicine, Texas Medicine Today, TMA's media and public relations activities, and the TMA Knowledge Center, website, and social media activities.

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