Patients are People, Too

Patients are People, Too

Albino. Mongoloid. Elderly primigravida. Do you know what these words mean?

A person with little or no pigment in skin, hair, and eyes. Someone with Down syndrome. And a woman 35 or older, pregnant for the first time. Once common medical usage, these terms are considered offensive today.

This article is designed to help you consider how your communications describe patients. It also reviews American Medical Association guidelines for writing about age, sex, and health conditions and introduces the concept of "person first" language.

Use precise terms for ages

Precise terms are the most useful to your audience because they give the most information. The AMA Manual of Style (10th edition) has helpful guidelines for specific ages.

When is a baby a "newborn?" From birth to 1 month. Other precise terms for age are:

  • Infant - 1 to 12 months -- For patients and other consumers, I use the plain- language term "baby."
  • Child - 1 to 12 years
  • Adolescent or teen - 13 to 17 years -- I use "teen" for patients and consumers and "adolescent" and "teen" in provider materials.
  • Adult - 18 and older
  • Young adult - 18 to 24, or by specific criteria. For example, the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program at Oregon Health & Science University serves people diagnosed with cancer from ages 15 to 39.

Avoid stereotypes

What do you think of when you hear the word "elderly?" Partly thanks to modern medicine, many older adults look, feel, and act contrary to the stereotype that may spring to mind.

Numbers really help here. If a drug side effect is more common in adults over 70, write "70 and older" instead of "elderly." Try "older adults" as a collective noun. The American Society of Clinical Oncology does this beautifully on its patient website. Or be specific: "nuns over 75" or "residents in assisted living facilities," if you're writing about a specific group.

Talk about sex . . . correctly

"Sex" refers to biology. "Gender" refers to self-representation.

When you write about children (ages 1 to 12), use "boy" and "girl." For teens (ages 13 to 17), you may use "adolescent boy" and "adolescent girl."

Avoid using "minor" in patient materials. "Under age 18" works fine and doesn't confuse readers who may be familiar with the word for "person who extracts ore" but not the legal term. In patient education, best practice is to avoid words that look or sound like other words with different meanings, as well as words with multiple meanings.

People 18 and older? Use "man" or "woman." Avoid the depersonalizing "male" and "female" unless you are writing about study participants for an audience of researchers.

Sexual orientation and transgender terms

In health care, the most precise wording is best. Use "women who have sex with women," and "men who have sex with men," instead of "lesbians," "gay men," or "homosexuals."

GLAAD's excellent Media Reference Guide provides basic education in writing about transgender people and issues, including a list of terms to avoid.

Health conditions and identity

Do you get migraines? If so, do you call yourself a "migraineur?" Or someone who really hopes a migraine won't interrupt your life? Some people who get migraines do use this word to identify themselves. Many people with hearing losses identify with Deaf culture. And even though Asperger syndrome lost its status as a specific diagnosis in 2013, many people still identify as Aspies.

On the other hand, the American Diabetes Association does not refer to "diabetics," but "people with diabetes." Using "person first" language is a best practice, unless the people you describe identify strongly and positively with a particular condition.

Take the quiz

The online edition of the AMA Manual of Style offers style quizzes to help you hone your skills. Try the quiz on age and sex referents (warning: it's not multiple choice. You get to try your hand at rewriting real sentences.) Now, get the answers.


I'd love to help you find the right word. Email me or call (503) 734-6853 to chat.

Summer Schedule
August 7 - Out of office
August 14-21 - Summer vacation
September 7 - Labor Day holiday

Recommended Reading

Do you get enough sleep? My favorite consumer health book this summer is Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, by Reuters reporter David K. Randall. It's a delightful piece of science journalism. (Don't miss the chapter "Bumps in the Night," which details some horrifying things people do while asleep.) I've written plenty about sleep hygiene, sleep disorders, and jet lag, but the vivid stories and humor in this book actually prompted me to rejigger my own habits. A cup of chamomile tea and this book, and you'll rest better, too.

How much sleep do you need? Read the 2015 National Sleep Foundation guidelines for your age group.

You might not think of your skin as an organ. But it's the body's largest, and The Comprehensive Guide to Skin Care by Rebecca B. Campen, M.D., covers about almost every inch. The section on sorting truth from hype will save you money at the cosmetics counter and drugstore. Information on medical disorders is solid (though you should check with your own health care provider on the latest). The emphasis on sleep (see above), stress reduction, and sun protection will pay off in time. You're welcome!

Genevieve J. Long, Ph.D., writes and edits for patients and health care providers. As the business owner, I specialize in patient education, plain language, and health literacy as well as marketing communications.

I belong to the American Medical Writers Association, the Plain Language Association International, and the National Association of Science Writers. In my spare time, I fly fish, walk my black Labs, do yoga, and read consumer health books and mysteries.

Email me or call (503) 734-6853 to discuss your project. I'm always happy to hear from you!


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