The Privileged Status of Prestigious Terminology: Impact of “Medicalese” on Clinical Judgments

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Health professionals frequently use medical terminology like dyspnea or nasopharyngitis. These two studies examine how the use of medical terms affects the judgments of seriousness, prevalence, and disease; and diagnostic judgments.


In study 1, a survey containing the names of 22 diseases with either a medical or lay description was completed by 47 undergraduate psychology students and 25 medical students, who were asked to judge seriousness, prevalence, and how “disease-like” it was. In study 2, undergraduate students learned four “pseudopsychiatry” conditions, each with four associated features. Features were presented in lay or medical versions. They were then tested with 18 new cases with two medical features from one condition and two lay terms from the other.


In study 1, the medical students rated conditions as more disease-like, more serious, and less prevalent than did the psychology students. Medical descriptions were seen as significantly less common and somewhat more serious and more disease–like. In study 2, the participants rated the condition with medical features consistently more likely than the alternative, regardless of training condition.


The specific words used to describe a feature or condition can have an impact on judgments of likelihood of disease, and, to a lesser extent, judgments of seriousness.

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