Anatomy of Words: Responsibility

doc in a box: Paper collage, marker, polymer


In a democratic society, every patient has the right to equal access to health care, regardless of their language ability (Thomas & Lee, 2009, p. 96). But if healthcare professionals continue to shrug off the use of plain language in their practice, then whose responsibility is it to ensure equal access? Is the onus then on patients to elevate their knowledge of medical language?

I explore this notion in The Lesson, a homemade notebook. With its worn pages, corrections, and errors, the piece alludes to one patient’s dedicated attempt to learn the language of medicine.  Its content reflects research by Davis, Williams, Marin, Parker, and Glass (2002) in which they found that “patients did not have a clear understanding of their anatomy” (p. 137).

Doc in the Box refers to an article by David Reiser (1973) in which he reflected on his medical residency and the ways in which doctors separate their thoughts from their feelings. He refers to language as the “fourth refuge in medical practice” (p. 298), saying that students use the “10,000 new words” they learn in medical school to stay “emotionally neutral” (p. 298). His point was that words that sound benign in medical language can be too potent when said in plain English. For example, it is one thing for a doctor to tell his patient that a drug will cause alopecia, and vastly more difficult to tell them their hair will fall out. Doc in the box explores this notion of the doctor’s attempt to compartmentalize feelings through use of language, and the struggle between the emotional and scientific demands of the medical profession.


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