The Incidence and Disparities in Use of Stigmatizing Language in Clinical Notes for Patients With Substance Use Disorder

J Addict Med. 2023 Jul-Aug;17(4):424-430. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000001145. Epub 2023 Jan 31.


Objective: The language used to describe people with substance use disorder impacts stigma and influences clinical decision making. This study evaluates the presence of stigmatizing language (SL) in clinical notes and detects patient- and provider-level differences.

Methods: All free-text notes generated in a large health system for patients with substance-related diagnoses between December 2020 and November 2021 were included. A natural language processing algorithm using the National Institute on Drug Abuse's "Words Matter" list was developed to identify use of SL in context.

Results: There were 546,309 notes for 30,391 patients, of which 100,792 (18.4%) contained SL. A total of 18,727 patients (61.6%) had at least one note with SL. The most common SLs used were "abuse" and "substance abuse." Nurses were least likely to use SL (4.1%) while physician assistants were most likely (46.9%). Male patients were more likely than female patients to have SL in their notes (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 1.17; 95% confidence internal [CI], 1.11-1.23), younger patients aged 18 to 24 were less likely to have SL than patients 45 to 54 years (aOR, 0.55; 95% CI, 0.50-0.61), Asian patients were less likely to have SL than White patients (aOR, 0.45; 95% CI, 0.36-0.56), and Hispanic patients were less likely to have SL than non-Hispanic patients (aOR, 0.88; 95% CI, 0.80-0.98).

Conclusions: The majority of patients with substance-related diagnoses had at least one note containing SL. There were also several patient characteristic disparities associated with patients having SL in their notes. The work suggests that more clinician interventions about use of SL are needed.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Healthcare Disparities
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / epidemiology