Vague language not to be used in online medical consultation

Published on April 13, 2021 – Together with one of her former master students (Linwei He), ACHC-researcher Eline Smit recently published a scientific paper in the European Journal of Health Communication. Their study focused on the effects of the language features used in online medical consultations, a phenomenon which has become increasingly popular.

In short, the aim of Eline and Linwei was to examine the effects of vague language (i.e., non-specific, imprecise language) on health-related uncertainty (e.g., insecurity about symptoms getting better or worse) and the associated affective and behavioural consequences. Examples of vague language use are the use of ‘approximators’, such as ‘somewhat’,  and the use of ‘elastic terms’, such as ‘maybe’ and ‘sounds like’. Together, Eline and Linwei conducted a web-based experiment among 249 participants. These participants read either virtual doctor-patient conversations where the doctor used vague language or virtual doctor-patient conversations where the doctor used precise language – and these two groups were compared with a control group that did not read any conversation. Results showed that vague language induced more health-related uncertainty than precise language and such uncertainty was appraised as a danger (e.g., as an expected negative impact of the situation) but not an opportunity. This appraisal subsequently led to negative emotions, such as worry and fear. No effects were found on behavioural outcomes The results suggest that online healthcare providers should refrain from using vague language in communication with patients to avoid eliciting uncertainty and subsequent negative feelings.

The research was published (open access) in the European Journal of Health Communication, a journal that was founded by – among others – our ACHC director Julia van Weert. Also, several ACHC members have an active role in this journal’s management and editorial board. The full paper can be found here.

Eline’s involvement in this study was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.