What's in a name - do labels help or hinder?
Posted on 15th October 2014 at 07:30
As humans we seem to want things to be simple, black and white. Good. Bad. Happy. Sad. Friend. Enemy.
While these labels may be a useful way of quickly describing something, they also have at least one major flaw. Once a label is in place, rarely do we go back and reconsider whether it is a fair – and true – description of whatever it is.
Let’s say that you meet someone for the first time and, for whatever reason, take an instant dislike to them. There was no reason why you should, you just did. Perhaps they were having a bad day and so were a little short with you.
As you didn’t know them, you just assumed they’re plain rude. So unconsciously you put a “dislike” label on them, without realising that it will determine how you treat – and react – to them in future.
A few weeks later you meet them again. This time they’re completely different. Much more friendly and amenable. So how would you treat them? More likely than not, in accordance with your first impression and the label you gave them. So, as someone you dislike.
This may be an overly simplistic example but can you see how much a label blinkers you? Instead of looking at the complete picture, you only notice things which confirm your initial impression – and label – of that particular person or thing.
Nowhere are labels more evident than in modern healthcare. Once a diagnosis is made – often on a set of very general symptoms – it’s treated as being set in stone. Rarely to be reviewed or reconsidered. While it may have been a reasonable description of the symptoms on that particular day, it may not apply a few days, weeks or months later.
With this in mind, doesn’t it now seem strange that we put so much emphasis on a diagnosis? On the label given for a set of symptoms. At the very least, it should be regularly reviewed to see how the person is responding to treatment and any suggested lifestyle changes. It should never be left in place for week, months or years without being reviewed.
Say, for example, a blood test shows that you’re a little anaemic. If you see this as only meaning that you were a little anaemic on the day the blood test was taken, it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re anaemic on an ongoing basis.
There may be many perfectly innocent reasons why you were anaemic on that day, such as a heavy period or starting a strenuous exercise regime. Our bodies are more than capable of dealing with such things, without the need for any intervention – or, certainly, long term intervention – given a little time and the necessary resources.
Of course having treatment at this stage may be helpful, but should always be reviewed to see how you’re progressing. To determine whether this is a one off problem or an ongoing one.
A series of blood tests over several months showing ongoing low iron levels are completely different to a single test showing slightly lower iron levels.
Unless a test shows results well outside the norm – so requiring urgent or emergency intervention – it’s the ongoing trend which is of importance, rather than the results of a single test.
It may seem that we’re labouring this point but, having talked to many people about this over the years, it seems to be one that many find difficult to understand.
Added to this is the temptation to link any future medical problems to that particular label, rather than looking at them with an open mind. An example we regularly come across is where someone has been given a Depression label in the past. When similar symptoms appear again in the future, the response is often “well it must Depression again”; rather than looking at what’s actually happening.
While we’re on the subject of labels (!), there’s another common misconception about labels which should be laid to rest. This is that the symptoms used to diagnose – or label (!) – a particular problem are specific to that particular one. Often this is not the case, with the same generalised symptoms applying to many different problems. Each one then comes with its own label and conventional treatment options.
This is the reason we always ask for your specific symptoms, rather than the label you’ve been given by the Doctor. And why we want to know what else is going on with your health and life; so we can put the symptoms in context and pinpoint a possible cause(s).
This way we can help you make changes to your lifestyle and diet to address these and so the symptoms. Without doing this, all medication can do is manage the symptoms, rather than helping you to remove them completely.
Let’s take a couple of other labels we regularly come across with patients as examples.
A label of Asthma has become a popular one over recent years, but how many people appreciate the general nature of the symptoms for this label? Here they are from the NHS Direct website:
Shortness of breath
Tightness or feeling like there’s a band round the chest
An ongoing cough
Now, let’s be honest, who hasn’t experienced these symptoms at some time or other? We certainly have, but are they really Asthma? In all likelihood, no.
Without knowing a bit more about what else is going on with that person, how can you possibly determine whether it’s a short term issue or an ongoing one? And so what label – and treatment – is needed?
Experiencing these symptoms for a few days after a cold or flu, is completely different to having them on a daily basis for months. Or in someone who hasn’t exercised for years and has recently started a strenuous exercise regime.
Can you now see the unintended effects labels have?
ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is another common label. Again, the symptoms come from the NHS Direct website and there is quite a long list of them:
Short attention span and being easily distracted
Making careless mistakes
Losing things or being forgetful
Unable to stick at tedious or time consuming tasks
Unable to listen or carry out instructions
Constantly flitting from one activity to another
Finding it difficult to organise tasks
Being unable to sit still
Being unable to concentrate on tasks
Excessive physical movement
Being unable to wait their turn
Acting without thinking
Little or no sense of danger
If we ignore the fact that many of the symptoms seem to be the same as each other – doesn’t short attention span cover most of the symptoms that then follow? – then, again, haven’t all children ticked these boxes at some time or other?
Having talked at length with those working with young children we hear the same observations over and over again.
That children learn by doing, not by sitting. Expecting them to sit quietly and concentrate for any length of time is not realistic; but this is exactly what the modern educational system expects from them.
Added to this modern schooling starts at a much younger age with parents – particularly mothers – under pressure to return to work. If you compare this with many other countries formal education doesn’t start until much older – around 7 years old – and children remain at home until starting school.
Then there are the more contentious observations involving parenting and diet. Certainly, in our experience, we’ve seen amazing improvements simply by cutting out sugar and other highly processed foods from the diet. And we’re not going to even get started with the side effects of other medication, particularly vaccinations!
Wouldn’t it make more sense to look at these issues first before considering a label and diagnosis? Going back to our recent blog post, does quick always mean a fix?
We appreciate that the lure of labels is a strong one, but hope that we’ve given you a little food for thought. Do they really help you as much as you’d been led to believe? Or are they more of a hindrance?
How about taking your blinkers off to look at the complete picture?
The results may surprise you…
As always, the choice is yours!
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