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Call a normal condition something fancy and folk will think it’s a serious and very common disease

December 11th, 2008

Dr Petra

The website Mind Hacks has an interesting review from a paper published in PLOS One that shows giving previously common conditions a new and fancy medical name makes people think they’re serious and prevalent problem. You can read their coverage here.

In the study of common versus relabelled terms, participants rated the relabelled conditions as being more serious and widespread – and as genuine medical conditions.

One of the categories was erectile dysfunction (previously referred to by a common name of impotence). Participants considered the relabelled ‘ED’ as more serious than the commonly used term. Of course it would be incorrect to say that impotence/ED is a completely fabricated condition. Men do suffer from erectile problems – either with a psychological basis, or due to other health problems such as diabetes or heart disease. However, we also know that pharmaceutical companies have made a point of hyping up our awarenss of ED and making it sound like a far more prevalent and worrying condition.

The reasons for ‘rebranding’ conditions can be read in two ways – either it’s an attempt to remove the stigma associated with a commonly named condition (for example it’s claimed impotence was rebranded because the commonly used term made men feel embarrassed and less likely to get help). Alternatively you can read the rebranding as a means of making a commonly understood condition the public may not be that worried about morph into a medical crisis. In other words a condition is medicalised and we’re made to worry about it while simultaneously being offered a ‘cure’.

I’d recommend reading the PLOS One study as it outlines how many of us – particularly journalists – can be hoodwinked into misunderstanding health conditions. And since journalists often are the ones who are targeted to bring such information to the public it is particularly in their interest to question any conditions they are being presented with as they may sound scary, serious and prevalent – but dig a bit deeper and you may find there’s a whole different story going on.

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