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The ethics of semantics in medicine
  1. David Shaw1,2,
  2. Alex Manara3,
  3. Anne Laure Dalle Ave4
  1. 1Department of Health, Ethics and Society, Care and Public Health Research Institute, Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
  2. 2Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  3. 3Intensive Care Unit, North Bristol NHS Trust, Westbury on Trym, UK
  4. 4Ethics Unit, Institute of Humanities in Medicine, University Hospital of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Shaw, Health, Ethics and Society, Maastricht University Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences, Maastricht, The Netherlands; d.shaw{at}maastrichtuniversity.nl

Abstract

In this paper, we discuss the largely neglected topic of semantics in medicine and the associated ethical issues. We analyse several key medical terms from the informed perspective of the healthcare professional, the lay perspective of the patient and the patient’s family, and the descriptive perspective of what the term actually signifies objectively. The choice of a particular medical term may deliver different meanings when viewed from these differing perspectives. Consequently, several ethical issues may arise. Technical terms that are not commonly understood by lay people may be used by physicians, consciously or not, and may obscure the understanding of the situation by lay people. The choice of particular medical terms may be accidental use of jargon, an attempt to ease the communication of psychologically difficult information, or an attempt to justify a preferred course of action and/or to manipulate the decision-making process.

  • ethics
  • clinical ethics
  • patient perspective
  • paternalism

Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplemental information.

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Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplemental information.

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Footnotes

  • Contributors DS and ALDA conceived the paper. DS wrote the first draft, which ALDA and AM substantially revised. All authors revised the paper for resubmission.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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