Words can hurt: Doctors must change the language of addiction

If the stigma surrounding addiction is one of the biggest obstacles to addressing it, the medical lexicon surrounding substance use disorders must also shift away from terminology that connotes blame and shame, according to an article from The Boston Globe.

It's not just blatantly offensive names, such as junkie or crackhead, that are problematic, the article noted. Subtle implications of terms such as "drug abuse," "addict" and even "clean urine" (implying that a person with a positive drug screen is "dirty") may potentially undermine recoveries.

"This is one of the reasons people don't seek treatment," John F. Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the newspaper. "Rather than seeing themselves as sick, they think they're bad people. They feel ashamed and embarrassed."

But switching to more sensitive terminology isn't so simple. The suggested, "person with a substance use disorder," for example, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. What's more, several well-recognized titles of government agencies, nonprofits and scientific journals include the more concise "drug abuse" or "substance abuse," according to the article.

While some medical journals are re-examining their policies, it's up to clinicians to communicate with patients in ways that are both accurate and helpful, which may vary the lexicon depending on the patient, The Boston Globe reported.

Talking to a patient about being an addict "in recovery," for instance, may help keep focus on the positive.

While there are several components to resolving the addiction crisis in the United States, physicians are on the front lines of preventing and treating substance use disorders, which afflict nearly 10 percent of Americans during some point in their lives, FiercePracticeManagement reported previously.

To learn more:
- read the article