The other day I heard a physician use a phrase I really don’t like. “The patient failed his therapy,” he said. Although I don’t want to be too picky about wording, I find that formulation to be quite disempowering and depressing for the patient.
Imagine a sick patient who tries a promising drug with the hopes of improving or being cured. It’s bad enough when a drug doesn’t work, but if the patient is made to think he’s failed as well that doesn’t seem very constructive. It would be more accurate and less threatening to say that the therapy failed the patient.
Going a step further, it might also be accurate to say “the physician failed the patient,” but I don’t think doctors would want to think of it that way!
Misattribution of blame is not unique to the heallthcare industry. Another example is provided by airlines, who are eager to avoid being faulted when they screw up. In recent years I’ve started to hear airline employees say, “the flight has cancelled,” making it sound somehow like the plane itself decided not to fly. A more accurate statement would be, “the airline canceled the flight.” Now they may have had their reasons, like bad weather, but even the most modern planes don’t cancel their own flights.
But back to healthcare, I hope physicians and other healthcare professionals will be more conscious of how the language they use affects how patients feel about themselves. It doesn’t mean walking on egg shells; instead it means trying to be empathetic, and soliciting constructive feedback from other members of the care team and patients and families themselves.
I don’t mean to make too big a deal of this. In fact, most physicians don’t use this “failure” terminology these days and I’m glad they don’t.