Living with Chronic Pain

Stigma in Health Care


Stigma in the health care profession involves negative attitudes or beliefs held by medical professionals about a group of individuals based on a distinguishing attribute or characteristic. Stigma in health care can lead to stereotyping and may prevent stigmatized individuals from receiving adequate health care.

Individuals who may be stigmatized by those in the health care profession include, but are not limited to, those who are HIV positive, have a history of mental illness, are obese, or deal with a substance abuse disorder. Gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation are other areas that may be stigmatized in health care.

Causes of health care stigma

Stigma in the health care profession exists for various reasons, including the following:

  • Lack of awareness of stigma and its consequences
  • False assumptions about certain health conditions or groups of individuals
  • Lack of knowledge about certain health conditions
  • Fear of infection from certain illnesses or diseases
  • Fear of the behaviors of a stigmatized group
  • Personal disapproval of behaviors associated with certain health conditions
  • Institutional policies, procedures or practices

Stigma practices

When a health care professional stigmatizes an individual, it may be very obvious, such as denying the person care, providing substandard care, or verbally abusing the person. It may also be more subtle, such as making the person wait longer to receive care or treating the person in a demeaning manner.

Stigma in health care is often perpetuated when stigmatizing language is used in an individual’s medical records. This type of language can lead to stigmatization of the individual during future care from medical providers who read the medical record. For example, referring to someone as a “substance abuser” instead of “an individual with a substance use disorder” places blame on the individual rather than the disease.

Stigma in the health care field can be reduced by educating medical professionals about stigma and its consequences, providing facts to refute commonly held myths or untruths about stigmatized conditions, and encouraging the use of neutral language in medical records and other documents.

Additional resources used to create this article include the Foundation for Health Care Quality, BMC Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association Network.

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