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    Language Matters

    Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), Other, Special Populations

    Last Updated Dec 23, 2021
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    The words we use to describe substance use and people who use substances can impact our care, our attitudes, and the patients we serve.

    For people who use substances, sometimes just making it to the emergency department can be challenging enough, without having to worry about the language that may be hurtful or stigmatizing.

    In a recent survey of ED patients in BC, ¾ of people who used opioids felt that stigma negatively affected their care.

    What kind of language matters?

    • “Addict” and “drug user” are terms that define a person.
    •  “Substance use” describes behavior.

    A “person-first” language is, therefore, preferred:

    • “Person who injects drugs” or “person with a history of injection drug use” instead of “injection drug-user.
    • Use “substance use,” a neutral phrase, instead of “substance abuse or misuse,” a judgmental phrase.

    Similarly, the term “recreational drug use” is probably best avoided: for some, there is nothing recreational about their substance use.

    When does language matter?

    All the time.

    When we address our patients, document their care, and discuss their cases with each other.

    EDs are crowded spaces: colleagues, patients, their friends, and their families may easily overhear us… or read our charts.

    What can you do?

    Related Information


    1. Toward the Heart– BC Centre for Disease Control

    2. Language Matters, Toolkit for the Surgeon General’s Report on Addiction– National Council for Behavioral Health

    3. IHI Open School Recover Hope Campaign – Change the Narrative Challenge Toolkit– Institute for Health Care Improvement.

    4. Language Matters– Canadian Public Health Association

    5. EM Network Substance Use Clinical Resources

    6. EM Network ED Response to the Opioid Overdose CrisisResearch Program

    Relevant Resources


    View all Resources


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