Your doctor tells you that you have androgenic alopecia. Visions of ebola and AIDS dance through your head. When you're told that this is just another term for male pattern baldness, relief begins to set in.

The more medicalized the term, the more a patient tends to see a condition as a disease and to see themselves as having something severe and rare ...

This isn't an isolated occurrence. Health conditions and abnormalities are increasingly being described in less accessible, more medicalized terminology. And when it comes to patient perception, words do matter. A Canadian study shows that the more medicalized the term, the more a patient tends to see a condition as a disease and to see themselves as having something severe and rare even when, like male pattern baldness, it's not.

These perceptions held even when study subjects were given a detailed description of a condition, including its symptoms. Seborrheic dermatitis was seen as more severe than dandruff. Such is the power of medicalese.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Frank Zappa satirized the difference between being diagnosed with bromidrosis or with stinkfoot in a 1970s song. It's not limited to health and medical conditions either; it can also be seen in legal, financial and political terminology. But it does seem to be occurring much more often in the labeling of health and medical conditions over the past ten years.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario are investigating both the causes and effects of this change. In this particular study, they focused on the impact of language on disease perception. In addition to the results already mentioned, they found that after about ten years of usage, the medicalized term enters the public consciousness and no longer seems more threatening. For example, hypertension and high blood pressure are now perceived as equally severe. Newer terms, such as erectile dysfunction disorder, are seen as more severe than the more common lay term, impotence.

Who or what is driving this change? Is it occurring because of an increased public awareness that conditions previously thought to be under the control of individuals, like excessive perspiration, are really illnesses? Or is it more a case of researchers' love of arcane terms turning molehills into mountains? One of the study authors, Karin Humphries, points out in an interview that a larger catalog of diseases allows pharmaceutical companies to market a larger number of medications. The authors are continuing to investigate these and similar issues, with some studies already in progress; clearly, there's a lot for them to choose from.

The study was of 52 undergraduate students. All were asked to evaluate the same 16 medical conditions, which ranged in seriousness from dandruff to heart attack. Eight of the conditions have been increasingly tagged with a medicalese label over the past 10 years, while the other eight have a medicalese term that's been in common usage for over 10 years. Half of the students were asked to judge the lay term, while half were given the medicalese term. These groups were further subdivided, with half of the students receiving only the name of the condition, while the other half was given a more detailed description which included symptoms. All subjects were asked to make three evaluations of the 16 conditions: seriousness, likely prevalence and whether or not the condition was a disease.

The study results were published online in the journal Public Library of Science One, December 8, 2008. This is an open access journal, freely accessible online at