News & Publications

Is it a Person with Diabetes or a Diabetic?

Mar 12, 2013

Am I being too sensitive?  Or, am I being proper and politically correct?  Imagine me now jumping up onto my soap box. 

I really struggle when I hear someone saying “diabetic” when talking about another person.  I learned over 30 years ago, when I was in my first semester of physical therapy school, that it wasn’t proper to call someone by a disease or disorder.  We don’t say paraplegic, we say a person with paraplegia. Similarly, we don’t say quadriplegic for a person with quadriplegia; stroke victim for a person who had a stroke; Parkinson’s patient for a person with Parkinson’s disease; or diabetic for a person with diabetes.  This was long before the notion of being politically correct and long before the terminology of person-first language.  It was just the right thing to do.  It shows empathy.  It shows that we see a person first, ahead of the disease or disorder. When I teach the PT students in our program, I reinforce this.  I don’t have to teach it; they have already been taught. 

Diabetic should be reserved for descriptions of things and as an adjective.  It is correct and acceptable to say diabetic neuropathy or diabetic socks or diabetic medications.  It is not proper to say a word ending in “ic” as a noun; “______ is a diabetic.”  It labels a person by a disease.  It can carry negative connotations.  It just doesn’t seem appropriate. It does take a little longer to say “a person with diabetes.”  It has become common to abbreviate to PWD in the written word.  That seems like a good option to me.  What do you think? 

At times, when I have said this to someone who calls another a diabetic, I hear “But that is what he/she calls him/herself.”  Fine, it is a person’s prerogative to identify her/himself however they choose.  It doesn’t mean it is acceptable for anyone else to assume it is all right.

Recently, I was reviewing the new ADA standards in the 2013 Diabetes Care supplement, and there it was!  “Some patients cannot be clearly classified as type 1 or type 2 diabetic,” “diabetic woman,” “diabetic patient,” etc.  I do remember a few years back hearing of a study published that reported the results of a questionnaire asking people with diabetes if it was okay to be called a diabetic, reporting that it was.  Does this mean we assume everyone with diabetes is okay with it?  I would rather be safe than sorry.

What do you think?  Am I being too sensitive?  Or, am I being proper/sensitive/politically correct?


Leave a comment
  1. Apr 29, 2013

    Yes, we are always people first before a disease that we may have.
  2. Mar 27, 2013

    In a world where people are becoming more educated, and with the increase of social media, I would be rather be safe than sorry. I would not want my patients or those I meet, think I am stereotyping them. Karren
  3. Mar 26, 2013

    Karen, I appreciate your raising this question. I, personally, don't use the "ic" word at all. I don't use it as a noun, because it's a label and not the most important thing about a person. I don't use it as an adjective because 1) sometimes it just doesn't make sense (socks and education don't have diabetes) and 2) it still puts the person last. I have blogged about this and written about it and talked about it, and there are definitely people out there who prefer to call themselves by that word, and that is certainly their choice. I often wonder why this became such a common word for diabetes, but not for other chronic (or acute) conditions. We don't ever say "asthmatic education" or "cancerous diet." Hmmm.
  4. Mar 25, 2013

    I agree with you Karen and I do see this changing more and more. I have even overheard a co-worker refer to a patient as "diabetic" and she was having a little challenge building trust and rapport with the patient at the time. I later discussed the concept of changing their terminology to "as someone managing diabetes" and the patient almost instantly changed their interaction with the staff member. I agree that the label of the disease is not desireable and I myself wouldn't want to hear it if I had diabetes. Thanks for posting! I think it needed to be discussed and brought out.
  5. Mar 22, 2013

    Thank you, Karen, for your comments on this important topic. I share the same level of sensitivity with regard to "labeling" persons who live with any chronic disease. I recently read a commentary on the same topic. The author wrote, " if a patient comes in for a hemorrhoidectomy, do we call him a 'hemorrhoidic'?" Let's hope not!
  6. Mar 19, 2013

    I completely agree! This is what I was taught years ago, and I'll never forget it.
  7. Mar 18, 2013

    Great conversation. Thanks and keep it coming! Karen
  8. Mar 17, 2013

    I totally agree with you. I work very hard to use that phrase whether I'm in conversation with health care professionals or with patients. I feel that it creates a certain atmosphere of identity.
  9. Mar 15, 2013

    I fully agree with you Karen. I have seen changes in nomenclature over the years, such as DMI and DMII to type 1 and 2, which were the result of word processing keys and clarity. I also grew up with a grandfather with DM1, a father with DM2. My husband was diagnosed with DM1 at age 3 and two of our children, now adults, have DM1. My children would correct people who referred to them as "diabetic". Hearing the word "diabetic" as a noun is like fingernails on a blackboard to us. My daughter would say, I am "name"; I am a fith grader: I am on the synchronized swim team and I have diabetes. My diabetes does not define me." If we have to use acronyms, I suppose PWD is better than writing it out. Like you, when I give presentations to nurses, I make it a point to let them know the patient is living with a disease called diabetes; he or she not a "diabetic", just like a patient with cancer is not a "canceretic". As a CDE, many professionals introduce me as the "diabetic nurse" to colleagues. I tell them I do not have diabetes, but I teach patients about managing their diabetes. (Although I often work with CDE's who also have diabetes and they sometimes joke that they are the only "diabetic" nurse at the clinic). And I do hope we have stopped identifying patients as "the (pick a disease) in room 220". We all have names.
  10. Mar 15, 2013

    I, too, was taught never to call people diabetics.... but after some discussion with people who have diabetes (I am well trained) I have decided that I think we ARE being too sensitive. I have children and am not upset when people call me a mother. I am a nurse and am not upset when people call me a nurse. I am also a cancer survivor. When people are called "a diabetic" it is generally only in the context in which their disease is an issue. It does not "label" them because it merely includes who they are in that context. All terms we use to describe people label them in some way or another - we have to have some way to communicate and I tend to favor the straightforward. This is an example of the political correctness police making a policy that in fact does not seem to matter much to the people it supposedly protects. If you look up "diabetic" in, the word is identified as a noun as well as an adjective and the noun is defined as " a person who has diabetes". I usually try to call people what they ask me to call them - and would certainly accede to their wishes if they don't like the term diabetic. I am often called the "diabetic nurse" and even though it is misleading since it sounds like I have diabetes rather than work with those who do, it is not offensive. As someone who meets the criteria for obesity (a diagnosis and some would say a disease), I find it amusing to discover that even though I am, someone has decided that you cannot say that I am. Can we make life more difficult? If it offends me I am able to say stop that.
  11. Mar 14, 2013

    Karen, I certainly agree with you and have been using the term, person with diabetes, for many years. All of my education programs for health care progessionals address the same issue and I am pleased to see it discussed here. If we label people with titles they will be the title not the person who lives with the condition. We should be the first group to support the people we care for and keep them respected as people with a health care issue and not a "Diabetic" Good for you!
  12. Mar 12, 2013

    I totally agree with you and I discuss this issue sometimes in my support group. Most people with diabetes do not like to be labeled as diabetics. Thanks

    Leave a comment

    In This Section

    News & Publications