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What’s in a Name? And Why It Should Matter to Insurers

March 05, 2015| By Dr. Chris Ball | L/H General Industry | English

Collective nouns can be obscure (a sord of mallards), descriptive (a gaggle of geese) or just plain made up (a memory of elephants). Though less artificial, the traditional “herd” of elephants is a much less thoughtful construct than a “memory”. With each the meaning and resonance of the word defines the socially constructed view of the creature.

Although some people appear to welcome being defined by their illness, they are in a minority. For most it is just a small part of their lives, which needs their attention certainly, but is not their dominant feature. You have only to look at the number of people who do not follow their medical regimes to realise that there really are more important things in life for many.

Definitions pose a problem both for individuals and organisations. Take my situation; UK health service rules dictate I must now take my pension but I am not stopping work as a doctor. Neither do I consider myself as old. However, the English Housing Survey puts my household in the “older adult” class, albeit at the youngest age band. So how should I define myself?

When a US advertising agency asked baby boomers to do just that, 98% rejected the idea they might be dubbed “seniors”. Almost as many rejected such terms as “older adults” or “50 plus”, with no clear consensus emerging. As a group, they did not wish to be patronised or talked down to - the notion they might be targeted on the basis of age was rejected. Elsewhere I have argued that the failure of the Long Term Care insurance market is largely driven by the fact that no one knows how old they really are anymore.

So, if we do not wish to be defined by our age how much worse would it be to be defined by a single characteristic? The law has intervened in order to stop discrimination on such a basis yet it still happens, particularly where illnesses are concerned. We no longer think of “hypertensives” or “diabetics” but rather of people who have hypertension and diabetes. Using “survivors” to describe people who have recovered from cancer is a singularly ambiguous usage.

I now work in “mental health” and not “psychiatric” services, removing a number of unwelcome resonances of medical hegemony that haunted care in the past. It is within mental health that the stigma that goes with defining people by their illness is most acutely felt. Many people will not seek help for fear of the label.

This fear remains legitimate despite the progress being made by anti-stigma campaigns across Europe. In Germany, for example, between 1990 and 2011 people became more likely to accept schizophrenia as a brain (neurological) disease rather than the moral responsibility of the sufferer. In the same way, one might view a person with Multiple Sclerosis without fear and as having the illness through no fault of their own. Despite this shift, fear of people with schizophrenia, and a desire for social distance from them, increased during the period.

There appears to be no collective noun for those who suffer from anxiety but the use of term “schizophrenics” rather than people with schizophrenia, sadly, remains pretty ubiquitous. Belonging matters, and if the insurance industry wishes to communicate and grow business with other professionals and lay clients, careful consideration needs to be given to the names used for the groups with which we are attempting to engage.


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