Inclusive Language in Health Care: Why It Matters

Whether you’re a health care executive, administrator or clinician, the words you use to communicate with your team matter. And in today’s polarized world, choosing to use inclusive language for your audience is critical to establishing trust and understanding. Organizations are going to great lengths to adopt comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) policies, and inclusive communication plays a large part in making these efforts real.

Inclusive language extends beyond traditional written communication – it includes everything from how doctors and clinical staff speak to patients and capture notes in electronic health records (EHRs) to a facility’s onsite signage and social media content, to how teams build a respectful and strong internal culture. When you embrace inclusivity across all channels, you create a welcoming environment not only for patients and customers but also for employees, vendors, business partners and providers. Diversity and inclusion can improve quality of care, advance innovation, reduce overall risk and boost financial performance.

Despite the prevalence of online resources and guidelines, developing clear-cut best practices can be difficult given the ever-evolving nature of inclusive language. The Lovell DE&I team is proud to share a few tips to help you frame the conversation around inclusivity and ensure your organization is constantly working to improve how it communicates with its diverse communities.

Don’t just research your audience – talk to them

Demographic data is important for understanding your audience on a basic level, but to truly grasp an individual or group’s shared experience, you need anecdotal evidence and first-hand feedback. Patient or customer surveys are a fundamental first step, but they often don’t provide the full picture of a given population’s concerns and sensitivities. Conduct focus groups that represent the communities you serve to understand how your audience prefers to be addressed and what your organization can do to better accommodate those needs.

Examine implicit biases

The National Institutes of Health defines implicit bias as “a form of bias that occurs automatically and unintentionally, that nevertheless affects judgments, decisions and behaviors.” In health care, implicit bias can have serious repercussions. Several studies have been conducted on the subject, including one that found white physicians who implicitly associated Black patients with being “less cooperative” were less likely to refer Black patients with acute coronary symptoms for thrombolysis for specific medical care. And when phrases like “less cooperative” get recorded in a patient’s EHR, they perpetuate the cycle of negative stereotypes that can impact clinical outcomes and harm the patient-physician relationship.

Highlight inclusivity in recruitment and retention

When considering inclusive language, organizations tend to focus on patient-facing messages, such as email, direct mail, thought leadership and social media. But research reveals the language used in employee recruitment and retention materials merits special attention as well. According to a Deloitte Millennial survey, 69% of respondents working at organizations they perceive as diverse intended to remain there for at least five years, compared to just 27% of employees who plan to stay for at least five years at companies they feel are less diverse. From job descriptions to onboarding materials, make sure you’re using inclusive language in all communications with employees and job candidates.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by using person-first language – saying “a person who is blind” rather than “a blind person” – which reinforces that the humanity or identity of a person comes before their diagnosis or demographic. Additionally, make sure you’re walking the walk as much as talking the talk by following through on promises to address DE&I initiatives in the workplace, and making time to regularly hear from employees about topics that are important to them.

Focus on words and images

Inclusivity applies to language as well as images, including photos published on your website, promotional materials, social channels and more. Highlight the diversity of your local community by selecting images that represent a swath of different races, genders, ages, abilities, body sizes and skin tones. Be thoughtful in your approach and avoid trying to cover all aspects of diversity in every image you choose – this can be construed as “performative inclusivity/diversity” and end up hurting rather than helping your cause.

Cater to different cultures and languages

Not all visitors to your website will be native English speakers. Removing language barriers is as simple as including links at the bottom of your webpage that allow visitors to access information in multiple languages or including translations on signage throughout your facility. Once you fully audit your audience, you’ll have a better idea of their cultural backgrounds and language preferences.

Using the proper pronouns, selecting the right images and recognizing implicit biases are crucial to communicating in an inclusive manner, but at its core, inclusivity is about learning, evolving and valuing people. And if you’re looking for inspiration, remember that inclusivity in health care can mean the difference between a positive patient outcome and a negative one.

For more resources on inclusive language and how to incorporate it in your communications strategy, reach out to us at