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Authored by: Andrew Kestler, Britt-Heidi Bailey, & Reija Jean (Peer Advocate & Vice-President BCAPOM), with support from the BC Patient Safety & Quality Council & the LOUD in ED Collaborative.

What does “language matters” mean?

The words we use to describe substance use and people who use substances can impact our care, our attitudes, and most importantly 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 language that may add insult to injury.

We, as emergency department staff, have likely all at one time used language that could stigmatize people who use substances, even if that was not our intention. In a recent survey of ED patients in BC, ¾ of people who used opioids felt that stigma negatively affected their care.

Which language matters?

Addict and drug user are terms that tend to define a person. Would you want to be defined only by your substance use? Might you not prefer labels like mother, daughter, physician, community activist, or musician? For that reason, person-first language is preferred: As an example, “person who injects drugs” or “person with history of injection drug use” instead of “injection drug-user.”

Other terms, such as “substance abuse or misuse” imply a certain degree of judgment when “substance use” would do just fine. Similarly, the term “recreational drug use” is probably best avoided. Many of our patients would say there is nothing recreational about their substance use.

When does language matter?

All the time: When we address our patients, when we chart, when we discuss a case. EDs are crowded spaces: colleagues, patients, their friends, and their families may easily overhear us when we least expect it.

What can you do?


Language Matters (March 2021) | Full Interview from BCPSQC. Jump to:


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