The Power of Words in the Healthcare Debate

The healthcare debate has heated up not just in Washington, but as an issue gaining significant traction with the American public.

No doubt this is due to the deeply personal, high-stakes nature of one’s own health. It is interesting to observe that President Obama has hit the first major roadblock in his juggernaut of popularity.

One of the reasons: the battle of words.

On the president’s side are such terms as “healthcare reform” and “affordable” and “accessible.”

Great words, but they pale in comparison with the visceral terminology being employed by the opposition, which is using words like “denied service” and “rationing.”

These are not abstract terms, but rather concrete words that conjure up mental images of being turned away from a doctor’s office or hospital. They are words suggestive of watching others receiving treatment while a child or parent languishes for lack of medical care.

As Frank Luntz has shown in his book Words That Work, the concrete always triumphs over the abstract. The power of words, he points out, can be as simple as changing a few letters. When the gambling lobby sought to create a more positive public image, it changed the name of its industry from “gambling” to “gaming.” Amazing what removing two little letters can do.

Same goes for re-framing the “estate tax” debate to one about the “death tax.” Same darn tax. It’s just that one seems like it only concerns rich folks, while the other hurts all of us.

So as the president and the healthcare reformers try to push this big rock uphill, unless they come up with better terminology, they may find themselves “denied service” at the next election cycle.



(C) 2009 David Heitman. All rights reserved.    303-665-8101