Oh, the humanity!—August 9, 2016

Patients are human beings, not cash machines.

Last week an agency client of mine asked me to edit a press release drafted by a specialty pharma company whose product had been favorably reviewed in a prominent journal. Pretty straightforward, I thought, as I made minor tweaks to the headline and first paragraph. But a sentence in the second paragraph made me spit out my mouthful of tea all over my computer screen:

"More than 90% of U.S. commercial lives have access to this product."

"Commercial lives"? Really? Is that what this company thinks of its potential customers?

Phrases like that underscore a disturbing trend in healthcare communications: the dehumanization of patients. Early in my career I had a mentor who counseled me not to describe persons with diabetes as "diabetics," a word that many patients find dehumanizing because it essentially defines them by their disease. I have tried to take that concept to heart when describing various types of patients and consumers of healthcare. But "commercial lives" is dehumanization on steroids.

And yet, I think I understand how such terminology has made it into circulation. "Commercial lives" sounds like it comes from the insurance industry, in which it is effectively a unit of currency (I could go on about what I think of health insurance companies, but that'd be a tangential discussion). It seems logical that the phrase would migrate to the pharmaceutical industry, where companies are in business to make money. For pharma companies, a pool of patients is a potential source of revenue.

However, while it may be acceptable to use the phrase "commercial lives" (or other crass marketing terms) in internal discussions, using such language in a press release (or in any external communications) is asking for trouble. Such careless usage can undermine any attempts to build or maintain relationships with patient communities and/or other external audiences. Essentially, when you describe a group of patients as "commercial lives," you're announcing to the world that you don't really think of your potential customers as vulnerable human beings with real medical needs, but as walking cash machines.  

Needless to say, when editing the release I crossed out "commercial lives" and replaced that offending phrase with "patients." I also told my agency client (who owns the relationship with the pharma company) to strongly discourage use of "commercial lives" in a press release, and to warn the company about the potential pitfalls of dehumanizing language.

I just checked the pharma company's website, and the release doesn't appear on it. I'm guessing that the release hasn't been issued yet, if it's to be issued at all. I'll keep watching for the release in the hope that the company takes my counsel to heart, much as I heeded my mentor's advice all those years ago.