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And as it turns out, how that eye grossness is labeled can make parents feel differently about how they’d want it treated in their own child. A study published last year looked at parents’ reactions to a hypothetical scenario in which a doctor describes a child’s symptoms of the viral form of conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis can also be caused by a bacterial infection or by allergies.


as either “pinkeye” or an “eye infection.” Participants also saw a photo of an afflicted eye.

When parents were told the child had an “eye infection” and that antibiotics were unlikely to help (because it was probably viral), their interest in the drugs declined. But when they heard “pinkeye,” parents still wanted antibiotics, even when they were told the drugs weren’t necessary. The finding suggests that word choice has consequences, especially given the overuse of antibiotics and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Compared to those who heard “eye infection,” parents who heard “pinkeye” also thought the condition was more contagious and weren’t as likely to believe that their kid could attend child care.

The study is part of an emerging body of research investigating how the words used to describe a disease or a condition can influence how patients feel about treatment options. “The words we use around health and diagnosis are incredibly powerful,” said Kirsten McCaffery, a behavioral scientist at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney Medical School in Australia. She’s an author of a new review of the research on this topic, which comes at a time of growing concern about overdiagnosis. Overdiagnosis occurs when people are diagnosed with a disease that never would have threatened their health or life. In most cases, they’re treated, sometimes aggressively. If the language used to describe a condition makes patients more likely to opt for the most aggressive treatment, that could make the overdiagnosis problem worse.

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