People & Conditions
This page provides general guidance related to use of language and images as they relate to individuals and health conditions they are experiencing. It is not meant to be comprehensive and we welcome feedback and suggestions. firstname.lastname@example.org
If a specific topic is not addressed here, please consult the Associated Press style guide which Michigan Medicine follows in most cases.
Patient/research participant consent
All Michigan Medicine patients and research participants who agree to have any identifiable information or likeness released via any means must sign a consent form (login required), or have one signed by their parent or legal representative if they are under 18 or incapable of signing. That form must be filed digitally in their electronic health record.
Patients/research participants taking part in communications materials created by any U-M communicator or department
Situations where U-M is connecting a patient/research participant to a non-U-M communicator, including members of the media
Situations where a U-M faculty or staff member is being asked to comment on a patient or research participant to any external communications entity
For more about release of patient information, see the Patient Privacy and HIPAA page on UofMHealth.org.
For more about including patients/research participants in images and video, see the Imagery page on the Michigan Medicine Branding Guidelines website.
For more about involving research participants in communications, see the Communicating About Research page on this website.
Special notes on news media:
When the media want to interview or photograph a patient, a member of the public relations team will first check with the appropriate clinical staff to ensure the patient is physically and emotionally capable before seeking consent. If the patient is under arrest, permission also must be obtained from the law enforcement officer in charge of the patient's custody.
Members of the media MUST be accompanied by a PR representative at all times while in Michigan Medicine facilities for any purpose, whether or not a patient is involved. Any visit must be arranged and approved in advance.
Other types of consent forms: Television or film production companies often have standard location consent forms for liability purposes; U-M has a standard, pre-approved location release that should be used instead. Faculty/staff may also be asked to sign a consent when taking part in interviews, etc. arranged by industry, professional societies, etc. In both cases, connect with a member of the public relations team or email MichMedmedia@med.umich.edu before signing anything.
Individual characteristics and beliefs
Follow Associated Press style, and check the AP Style Guide for updates as language usage changes. (For instance, the 2020 change to capitalize Black, and language regarding sexual identity and personal pronouns.) If you are unsure or unaware of AP Style, contact MichMedmedia@med.umich.edu.
In writing surveys, event registration forms, etc. be careful about gender-related questions to avoid "othering" members of the LGBTQ+ community. Use language such as "What was your sex assigned at birth: male/female", a pull-down menu or a list with multiple options, or even allow open-text responses such as "What is your gender:_____________" Do not use terms “biological sex” or “true sex”, and always allow for "Other"
Professions, employment and education
Teams and their leaders: Clinical care and biomedical research are inherently team-based. While teams may be led by physicians or scientists with faculty appointments, they are not the only professionals providing care or conducting studies. Even when one or two individuals are tapped to speak on behalf of the team, or hold the lead position on a team, it is best to speak of the team and their role in it. All of these pursuits are team-based, so we should err on the side of inclusivity.
Here are ways to do that:
Recognize leaders and teams at once: Smith leads a large laboratory team.... Jones is the principal investigator on a grant that funds the work of a team of researchers...
Use short descriptions that recognize all professions involved in a team without having to name them: Primary care providers, mental health care providers, women’s health care providers, surgical team members, cancer specialists, hearing specialists, rehabilitation team members, vision care specialists, oral health or dental care teams,
laboratory team (It is of course acceptable to list all professions involved in these teams, or the profession of an individual mentioned by name.)
Do not use “Physician extenders” to describe advanced care professionals.
Other jobs and professions: Use current titles that respect the skills and contribution of individuals in all occupations. For instance, custodian or Environmental Services worker, not janitor or cleaning staff.
Learner vs. student: Both terms are acceptable, however student connotes a person pursuing a degree and does not describe those in post-degree training programs or certification programs. When speaking of a learner who is in a training program, do not refer to them as a "trainee" but rather give specific such as "postdoctoral research fellow' or "Surgery resident." When speaking of a group of people who are pursuing different lines of study or training, use "learners" -- for instance, "The Medical School learner community includes people working toward medical and graduate degrees, and people pursuing advanced training in scientific and clinical fields."
Guiding principles: Respect diversity, know your biases, avoid stereotypes, use appropriate terminology, aim for balanced and accurate coverage, maintain dignity in both writing and visuals, remember that marginalized individuals are human, check with individuals and colleagues about cultural appropriateness of what you are creating. (adapted from David J. Brown, M.D.)
Examples of what NOT TO SAY:
Suffers from (condition name)
Handicapped people.... or any use of the word 'Handicap' or "physically challenged" to describe a person, a building entrance or even parking spaces.
Diabetics often need....
Epileptics can't do....
Asthmatics must take....
Wheelchair-bound people... or people confined to a wheelchair....
Woman battling breast cancer...
Examples of what to say instead:
Person who has (condition name)
People with physical disabilities or mobility impairments... Accessible entrance, disabled parking
People with diabetes often need....
Children with epilepsy can't...
People with asthma must take...
People who use wheelchairs for mobility... (shorthand of "wheelchair users" is acceptable for headlines, etc.)
Women with breast cancer...
Person who has had a stroke....
Veteran experiencing homelessness...
In some cases, people or communities of people with a certain diagnosis may see it as an intrinsic part of their identity, and may be comfortable with alternate constructions:
Deaf (capitalized) people.... or people with hearing loss. "Hearing impaired" is not generally preferred by members of the hearing loss community, but some individuals may prefer it. If you are mentioning or quoting an individual who has a hearing loss, ask them for their preferred term.
People with autism OR Autistic people OR People on the autism spectrum are all acceptable, though when possible it is best to ask an individual which they prefer. Do not use "an autistic" or "autistics" as a noun.
Mental health and suicide:
In order to reduce the stigma associated with other ways of describing mental and behavioral health conditions, and suicide, use the following "people first" language:
• People with (…mental illness, depression, addiction, substance use disorder, etc.),
• People who have died by suicide,
• People who have experienced a suicide attempt, or a suicide attempt survivor
• People bereaved by suicide, or survivor of suicide loss
• People impacted /affected by suicide, and
• People with lived experience related to suicide.
Do not use "commit suicide" or describe someone by the name of their illness (a schizophrenic, an addict) unless in quotes where the specific person has used that language about themselves.