How often have you heard a health provider refer to someone as a “diabetic” or “obese”? You’ve probably heard that on television, in advertisements for medications, in articles that you have read. When we use those terms, it implies that you are no longer a person but rather you are defined by your disease. And while some people may not care, or may even fell that they need that definition to recover, for a lot of people this hurts.
Switching to “people-first language” is something that was emphasized in my training as a dietitian during my dietetic internship. I remember on one of the very first days hearing my internship director tell us that our patients were not to be referred to as “diabetics” or “schizophrenics” or “anorexics”. Our patients are people, and the motto at our hospital was “every patient first”. This idea was something that followed me into my career, first as a dietitian working with patients that had eating disorders, and again as a dietitian working in long term care. The elders that I worked with were not “demented”, they were people with dementia. The ones that needed help eating were not to be referred to as “feeders” or where they ate as the “feeder table”, but as residents who needed assistance with eating and their table.
You would think after many years of training and using this “person-first” approach that it would come naturally and easily to me. It doesn’t. There are still times when I catch myself using those terms to describe my patients. And it is sometimes even more difficult when it comes to working with my current patient population – patients preparing for weight loss surgery or coming in for weight management counseling. It is so ingrained in us to refer to someone as being overweight or obese. Your weight is not who you are, and your health providers should not refer to you that way. Your BMI might not be “normal” and you might have increased body fat, but you are a person. I won’t even get into the whole health at every size, body shaming, obesity bias issue in this blog article because I would be here all day.
Some of you might be thinking, “Man, everybody gets so offended by everything these days. Why do we always have to be so politically correct? Get some thicker skin!” Here’s my thought: whatever happened to that golden rule that our mothers taught us – if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? You don’t get to decide whether or not something is offensive to someone else. Like I said before, some people might not care and might even prefer that you call them a diabetic or an alcoholic. But for others, it makes them feel like they are diseased, imperfect, maybe even something to be feared. So let’s all try to be a little more “PC” if you want to call it that – what I call it is just being a good human being.
If you want to learn more on the subject, here are some great websites and articles you can peruse: Putting People First in Obesity, People First Language, People First Language for Obesity, What is People First Language?, Two Reasons for People First Language in Obesity, and finally from the person who actually inspired this blog post, Dr. Sharma To Have is Not to Be