Apparently a few years ago someone decreed that “non-compliant” was no longer a politically correct term to describe patients who did not take their medicines or follow instructions. The newspeak to use is now “non-adherent.” This was recently brought to my attention by cardiologist-blogger Dr. John Mandrola, who humorously blogged about his own non-compliant-adherent behavior after a hand injury.

I googled “non-adherent vs. non-compliant” and found references to the former used in medicine from as far back as 1998 but most hits were from this century. I could not identify the origination of the switch or why the term non-compliant was perceived to be judgmental.

I suppose compliant has a more submissive connotation, and God knows, we should not consider patients as subjugated, but adherent really means sticky as an adjective and follower as a noun. Is a patient who takes his meds “sticky” or a “follower”? The difference between the two definitions, compliant and adherent, is minor at best.

Who decides these things anyway? I don’t remember this being discussed anywhere.

This phenomenon is not unique to the US. Public health workers in the UK were recently informed that the use of the word “obese” could be viewed as derogatory by obese people. The workers were told “that patients may respond better if they are encouraged to achieve a ‘healthier weight.’ ” The full story is here and is worth reading if only for this amusing mixed metaphor uttered by an opponent of the UK advice: “If you beat around the bush then you muddy the water.”

There is research on this subject. A 2012 paper from the journal Obesity (soon to be renamed “Healthier Weight,” I guess) describes a survey of a lot of people whose weight formerly would have been termed obese but now should properly be called unhealthily weighted. The term fatness was rated as significantly more undesirable than all others and excess fat, large size, obesity and heaviness were rated as significantly more objectionable than the remaining terms, such as weight problem, BMI, excess weight and the best of all, weight.

It’s not clear how just describing someone as “BMI” or “weight” will get the message across, but then I didn’t perform the study.

Question: what do you do with a person who needs to achieve a healthier weight but is non-adherent?

Skeptical Scalpel is a practicing surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For almost 2 years, he has been blogging at and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 200,000 page views, and he has over 2,900 followers on Twitter.