Reconsidering the role of language in medicine

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© 2018 The Author(s). Background: Despite an expansive literature on communication in medicine, the role of language is dealt with mostly indirectly. Recently, narrative medicine has emerged as a strategy to improve doctor-patient communication and integrate patient perspectives. However, even in this field which is predicated on language use, scholars have not specifically reflected on how language functions in medicine. Methods: In this theoretical paper, the authors consider how different models of language use, which have been proposed in the philosophical literature, might be applied to communication in medicine. In particular, the authors contrast the traditional, indexical thesis of language with new models that focus on interpretation instead of standardization. Results: The authors demonstrate how paying close attention to the role of language in medicine provides a philosophical foundation for supporting recent changes in doctor-patient communication. In particular, interpretive models are at the foundation of new approaches such as narrative medicine, that emphasize listening to patient stories, rather than merely collecting information. Conclusion: Ultimately, debates regarding the role of language which have largely resided in non-medical literatures, have important implications for describing communication in medicine. In particular, interpretive models of language use provide an important rationale for facilitating a more robust dialogue between doctors and patients.