Using Unbiased Language to Discuss Disease

When writing about diseases, it is best to convey respect and thoughtfulness toward the patients you are writing about.

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To follow up on our article on gender-neutral language, today’s editing tip describes the use of unbiased language when discussing disease. In particular, phrasing that differentiates the identity of the individual from his or her clinical condition, rather than defining that individual by his or her disease, is preferable. This type of language may enhance the professionalism of your work by demonstrating your respect for your subject matter and audience.

For example, instead of writing “a diabetic,” which conflates a patient’s identity with diabetes, one of the following would be preferable:

  • A diabetic patient
  • A diabetes patient
  • A patient with diabetes

Note that the decision to use the first or second option (the adjective or noun form of the condition, respectively) is flexible, although specific fields may favor certain conventions. However, the American Medical Association’s style guide (subscription required) specifically recommends the third option, which places the individual before his or her condition.

Additionally, defining an individual as having a condition, rather than being that condition (e.g., “the patient has diabetes” instead of “the patient is diabetic”), is considered less biased.

Finally, negative language that suggests victimization by disease should be avoided, including afflicted with, suffering from, and victim of.

We hope that you now have a clearer sense of what phrasing to use when discussing individuals with diseases. If you have any questions or comments, please email us. Thanks for your readership!

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