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The Power of Words

March 4, 2020

I learned a lesson early about the importance of the words I use in taking care of patients. I’m not sure where I learned it, but the value of the lesson became quite apparent in this one patient encounter.

Setting:  I was on-call for my small private pediatric group and was called to see an infant at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Bremerton, Washington. While at the ER before I arrived, this febrile infant had a febrile seizure but recovered quickly and fever controlled quickly. The exam was normal and young child was alert, happy and no longer ill appearing.

I introduced myself, but the young parents appeared quite alarmed by my diagnosis of “febrile seizure.” I explained the exam and how this is a fairly common occurrence but not dangerous.  However, the father remained quite agitated and insisted we take him over to Children’s Hospital in Seattle, an hour’s ferry ride away.

I then started using ‘different words’ for the same condition and all of sudden the father smiled and was visibly quite relieved!  He then blurted out, “You said febrile seizure and now you said febrile convulsion!”  I said yes, they are the same problem but I am using just a different word for the same problem.

He then remarkably replied: “Oh, I am not worried about febrile convulsions, because three of his siblings had that more than once and did just fine! “When you said ‘seizure’ I thought you meant ‘Heart Seizure or Heart Attack’ and my father had that and died!”

Ah, the words we use can make such a difference for our patients’ understanding.  So, my learned lesson had been confirmed by this one encounter. Keep the practice of changing the words that mean the same thing because our patients may understand the words in such different and unexpected ways.

About the Author

Mark Nupen, MD, is a retired pediatrician active with MNAAP’s Senior Pediatricians’ group.

The Senior Pediatricians’ group will meet on Thursday, March 19 from 12 to 1:30 p.m. at The Wedge Table in Minneapolis. Email Melissa DeBilzan at          debilzan@mnaap.org to RSVP.

MNAAP is collecting stories from retired pediatricians to share more broadly. If you have a story to share, email Bethany Venable at venable@mnaap.org

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