Viewpoint: Physicians should shift the way they talk about diabetes

Nearly 38 million people in the U.S. are living with diabetes. It is a chronic health condition physicians receive copious training around, yet treating patients without stigma-centric language is not part of it, according to Mihail Zilbermint, MD, a physician at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

For individuals living with the condition, stigma is something they report facing often, including "feeling blamed by others for causing their own condition," according to previous research. They also report that the sources of stigma often include healthcare professionals. 

"People living with diabetes will say that 'diabetes does not define them,' yet they often refer to themselves as 'diabetics,'" Dr. Zilbermint wrote in an article published by the National Library of Medicine. "Doctors are frequently 'trained' to call people 'diabetics,' and I am one of them."

The term, "diabetics" is one cited by organizations and patients alike that has negative connotations. Individuals with diabetes are simply that, organizations say — someone living with a condition rather than being the condition themselves. 

The term is also commonly used by medical professionals in electronic health records, Dr. Zilbermint points out, which "thousands of doctors, nurses and patients look at" and "may think 'what's on the screen is what is right.'" 

To curb biases among medical professionals, Dr. Zilbermint recommends:

  1. Being aware and changing the way you speak as a physician. Rather than using the term "diabetic," shift to using "person with diabetes." 
  2. Educating staff on biases and appropriate, stigma-free terminology.
  3. Reflect and advocate for policies and organizations to incorporate diversity and inclusion throughout practices.

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