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This chronic conditions buzzwords list reveals an unexpected bias

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Oct 18, 2021 12:00:00 AM

Buzzwords are concise, often catchy terms that sum up what’s on our mind. They’re especially important in healthcare, where they can help patients express complex feelings and issues and find others who might be going through the same thing.

A recent article from online health community portal Health Union looks at five buzzwords used by people with chronic health conditions. These words offer important insight into the patient experience. For instance, “scanxiety” is a term used by many cancer patients. A portmanteau of “scan” and “anxiety”, it succinctly describes the feeling of fear and worry that these patients often feel before scans and other tests.

Whether or not every patient uses the buzzwords on the list, they’re helpful for healthcare providers to be aware of, because of the insights they offer. But the list also raises an important and troubling question.

According to Health Union, the buzzwords on their list were gleaned from “[f]indings from Health Union’s large-scale, condition-specific In America surveys – conducted regularly – as well as perspectives from people engaging with these communities”.

If the surveys are so large-scale, it’s a little surprising that the buzzwords are all in English. According to the 2020 US census, nearly 10% of the US population speaks English “less than very well”. This doesn’t mean that the people in this group don’t speak English at all or refuse to learn it; they just feel more confident communicating in another language, especially when it comes to important issues like health and treatment.

Health Union cites its survey participants as coming from “35+ chronic health condition communities”. You can find a page with the name of each of these communities and a link to their website. Look a little deeper and you’ll discover that each one is run by Health Union itself.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and the “About” statements on these sites clearly state that the company isn’t owned by or connected with any healthcare or pharma company that would manufacture drugs or treatments for these conditions. Bravo to them for promoting an unbiased view.

But each site is biased in a different way (and one that explains the linguistic origins of the buzzwords on the article list): It’s only available in English. To be fair, this is sadly the case for many other health and wellness websites.

Although Health Union’s buzzwords list is about something entirely different, it’s evidence of the pervasive language bias and barrier that many US patients face.

The issue goes beyond buzzwords. Language barriers in healthcare can even be a cause of death. For instance, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of clear information for non-English speaking patients is estimated to have increased their risk of death by 35%.

This is, sadly, one of countless ways language can affect patients’ prognoses. An article in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics includes patients with limited English proficiency “among the most vulnerable populations” , due to factors like the significantly increased chance of medical errors, poor clinical outcomes, and lower quality care they’re likely to experience.

Fortunately there are things that patients can do to get information in the language they prefer.

Healthcare and pharma organizations can also help. The first step could be identifying which languages are predominant among patients. This could be done through research and surveys, or even by looking at statistics. For instance, heart disease is a leading cause of death among Hispanics in the US . A heart health or heart disease-related website could start by translating their webpages into Spanish.

Health Union’s buzzwords article has a great deal of merit, representing patients and giving them a voice. But it also serves as a subtle reminder that so many other patients are left silent.

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