Stigmatizing Language on Liver Transplant Center Websites May Deter Patients from Seeking Treatment


Liver transplant centers in the United States have been found to use stigmatizing language on their websites, potentially discouraging patients from seeking treatment, according to a study by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). The study reveals a significant gap between the language used online and the recommendations of medical societies, highlighting the need for an awareness campaign to promote more sensitive and non-stigmatizing language in patient-facing materials. The results of the study were published in JAMA Network Open.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Rachael Mahle, an internal medicine resident at MGH, explained the importance of using more neutral and respectful terms like “alcohol use disorder” instead of “alcoholic.” The language used in healthcare can greatly influence how patients feel and whether they seek clinical help. By adopting kinder language, websites can help patients feel more comfortable and supported when seeking health information or treatment.

The study was prompted by the recognition that the perceived stigma attached to alcohol use disorder (AUD) and alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD) can lead to delayed disease detection and impact intervention strategies and liver transplant allocation decisions. The researchers set out to determine the extent to which accredited US liver transplant centers and addiction psychiatry websites at the same institutions followed the recommendations of professional societies to use non-stigmatizing language.

The team conducted a systematic analysis of 114 liver transplant center websites and 104 addiction psychiatry websites across the country to assess the use of potentially stigmatizing language. The results revealed that stigmatizing language was prevalent on 88% of transplant center websites and 46% of addiction psychiatry websites.

Regarding AUD-specific references, almost 80% of transplant websites used stigmatizing language exclusively, compared to 31% of addiction psychiatry sites. When it came to ALD-specific references, 67% of transplant websites used stigmatizing language exclusively, 20% used non-stigmatizing language, and 13% used mixed language.

The study highlights the concerning gap between professional society recommendations and actual practice. As patients often rely on online resources for information, the language used on these websites significantly influences their behavior and perceptions about alcohol-related liver disease. Dr. Wei Zhang, senior author of the study and an attending gastroenterologist at MGH, emphasizes the need for hospitals to improve their communications by using language that aligns with patient-first, non-stigmatizing approaches, which have been shown to lead to better health outcomes.

In conclusion, the study by MGH reveals that stigmatizing language is prevalent on many liver transplant center websites, potentially deterring patients from seeking treatment. The research emphasizes the importance of using kinder and more non-stigmatizing language on patient-facing materials, as language greatly impacts patient behavior and perceptions. There is a need for a large-scale awareness campaign to promote the adoption of non-stigmatizing language in healthcare communications, ultimately improving health outcomes for patients with alcohol-related liver disease.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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