Previous article Table of Contents  Next article

Year : 2022  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 276-277

On language – first, do no harm

Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA

Correspondence Address:
Roman Schumann
Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/sja.sja_319_22

Rights and Permissions
Date of Submission18-Apr-2022
Date of Acceptance19-Apr-2022
Date of Web Publication20-Jun-2022

How to cite this article:
Schumann R. On language – first, do no harm. Saudi J Anaesth 2022;16:276-7

How to cite this URL:
Schumann R. On language – first, do no harm. Saudi J Anaesth [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 Dec 8];16:276-7. Available from:

We use specific medical language and terminology – it is common and necessary for the profession. Mostly we mean no harm, and we often do not even think twice about it – and it is so hard to change.

The 'obese patient', the 'severely,' or 'morbidly obese' patient are now terms that are not only outdated, but have been identified as harmful to persons with the disease and obstacles to the successful treatment of obesity.

The adoption of person-centered language in medical specialties including anesthesiology is overdue for many disorders and diseases, obesity being one of them.

Let us think about it.

The terms 'obese patient' implies that the disease is a defining characteristic of the person and the person becomes the disease. This narrative deprives the person of the fact that the disease is only one aspect of their life and not what defines them. The expanded term 'morbidly obese patient' adds insult to injury with the implicit suggestion that there is a non-disease entity of the disease of obesity – absurd. The alternative person-centered framing – the patient with obesity or severe obesity – corroborates empathy, concern, and care for the affected individual and validates what science is telling us about obesity, it is a disease.

This latter insight is slow to progress in the minds of healthcare providers and society at large although the scientific literature is clear.[1] The physiology and pathophysiology of adipose tissues is fascinating and the multifactorial etiology of the disease of obesity is complex, hence effective treatment and sustained success have remained a challenge.[2]

In the case of obesity, negative attitudes and beliefs toward persons with the disease – implicit and sometimes explicit weight bias – continue to be wide spread in healthcare systems and society. One contributing factor is the misguided and prevailing perception that obesity is completely under the control of the individual affected by it.[3] This implies for the person to be thought of as making poor (nutritional) choices, being poorly behaved with a lack of self-control and discipline and worse. Simplifying obesity to an issue of personal behavior essentially dismisses the current scientific evidence for obesity.[4] This is not what we want to be known for.

Weight-biased and stigmatizing language in daily medical practice and the literature denies patients dignity and respect.[5] The obesity stigma unleashes grave consequences for our patients with the disease. Affected persons have a lesser likelihood of seeking care for their obesity, they may experience psychological trauma and their quality of life declines.

We are healthcare providers and therefore we should continue to listen to our patients. The perception of weight-based bias from physicians has been reported by 70% of patients with obesity.[6] The term 'morbidly obese' and its relatives have been identified as least desirable and most stigmatizing and blaming in the context of obesity in numerous studies with patients, the lay public and providers.[7],[8],[9] It is time to more thoughtfully use our language and replace injurious lingo. It is time to center our language around the lived experience of people with obesity and their identification without reinforcing labels, objectification, stigmatization, and marginalization.

Mostly outside of the specialty of anesthesiology, the discussion in the wider medical community regarding unintentionally disparaging language with respect to obesity has been ongoing for more than a decade. Eventually the American Medical Association released a position statement on person-first language for obesity known as H-440.821 in 2017.[10] A joint international consensus statement to end the stigma of obesity was published in 2020 and endorsed by many entities that included just one anesthesia society, the International Society for the Perioperative Care of Patients with Obesity (ISPCOP).[11] Within surgery, the subspecialty of bariatric surgery strongly supports person-centered language for obesity.[3] This is reflected by many of their journals which have specific instructions for authors to eliminate inappropriate terms to describe patients with obesity. In fact, the editor-in-chief of a major American scientific journal in the field of bariatric metabolic surgery provided further specific language instructions in an e-mail to reviewers and editors as late as March 2022 to assure an appropriate narrative for patients with obesity.

For the quest to rethink the way we think and to re-examine our narratives in medicine and society, the disease of obesity is just one example. It is embedded with the larger issue of health equity and justice, and the journey though still nascent, unmistakably continues.[12] It is important to understand our language and choice of words as a powerful instrument of equity and inclusion beyond healthcare, as so eloquently described in a recent Harvard Business Review article.[13]

Rethinking and consciously changing the way we describe patients with certain diseases will not immediately solve the problem, but it is a step in the right direction.

We may agree that medicine constantly evolves and changes over time – we diagnose what we know and not what we do not yet know. And with this evolution, medical language also must evolve and change based on deeper understanding and new knowledge about diseases, and integrate dignity and respect for our patients. But language, as Voltaire reminds us, is a very difficult thing to put into [the right] words. We must continue to try.

In this special issue of the journal, the authors and the editors have made every attempt to be mindful of the need for our patients to be addressed appropriately and with respect.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

Royalties for 2 obesity related chapters in UpToDate - Wolters Kluwer.

Past President of the International Society for the Perioperative Care of Patients with Obesity.

  References Top

Hagan S. E66.01 and our culture of shame. N Engl J Med 2021;385:2307-9.  Back to cited text no. 1
Cypess AM. Reassessing human adipose tissue. N Engl J Med 2022;386:768-79.  Back to cited text no. 2
Eisenberg D, Noria S, Grover B, Goodpaster K, Rogers AM, American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Clinical Issues Committee. ASMBS position statement on weight bias and stigma. Surg Obes Relat Dis 2019;15:814-21.  Back to cited text no. 3
Schwartz MW, Seeley RJ, Zeltser LM, Drewnowski A, Ravussin E, Redman LM, et al. Obesity pathogenesis: An endocrine society scientific statement. Endocr Rev 2017;38:267-96.  Back to cited text no. 4
Bajaj SS, Stanford FC. Dignity and respect: People-first language with regard to obesity. Obes Surg 2021;31:2791-2.  Back to cited text no. 5
Puhl RM, Kelly DB. Confronting and coping with weight stigma: An investigation of overweight and obese adults. Obesity 2006;14:1802-15.  Back to cited text no. 6
Puhl R, Peterson JL, Luedicke J. Motivating or stigmatizing? Public perceptions of weight-related language used by health providers. Int J Obes (Lond) 2013;37:612-9.  Back to cited text no. 7
Hales C, Gray L, MacDonald C, Purdie G. Dissonance in naming adiposity: A quantitative survey of naming preferences from a convenience sample of health professional and lay population in Aotearoa New Zealand. N Z Med J 2019;132:20-30.  Back to cited text no. 8
Pearl RL, Walton K, Allison KC, Tronieri JS, Wadden TA. Preference for people-first language among patients seeking bariatric surgery. JAMA Surg 2018;153:1160-2.  Back to cited text no. 9
Person-First Language for Obesity H-440.821. American Medical Association [policy page on the Internet]. Available from: [Updated on 2017; Last accessed on 2022 Mar 26].  Back to cited text no. 10
Rubino F, Puhl RM, Cummings DE, Eckel RH, Ryan DH, Mechanick JI, et al. Joint international consensus statement for ending stigma of obesity. Nat Med 2020;26:485-97.  Back to cited text no. 11
Harmon GE. Our words matter. It's time to get them right [monograph on the internet]. 2021Available from: [Last accessed on 2022 Mar 25].  Back to cited text no. 12
Hamilton OS, Kohler L, Cox EB, Lordan G. How to make your organization's language more inclusive [monograph on the internet] 2022. Available from: [Last accessed on 2022 Mar 25].  Back to cited text no. 13


Previous article    Next article
    Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
    Access Statistics
    Email Alert *
    Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)  

  IN THIS Article

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded151    
    Comments [Add]    

Recommend this journal