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Person-centred language and HIV research: a cross-sectional examination of stigmatising terminology in medical literature


Objective We sought to quantify the use of person-centred language (PCL) in research journals that publish high volumes of HIV-related manuscripts.

Design In this cross-sectional study, we searched PubMed for HIV-related articles published between 1 January 2017 and 7 March 2021. After journal reduction and article randomisation, title and abstract screening was conducted among 500 studies in a masked, duplicate fashion.

Methods Studies that were included were systematically searched for prespecified, stigmatising terms, partial terms and phrases. Prevalence rates of non-person-centred terminology were totalled, and the total number of articles adherent to PCL guidelines were reported. Fisher’s exact tests were used to determine associations between PCL adherence and article funding source, type of article, continent of origin and research, among others.

Results Among 237 studies included, 21.52% (51) of HIV-related publications in this cross-sectional analysis were found to be PCL adherent. Stigmatising labels such as ‘HIV- or AIDS-infected’ and ‘HIV- or AIDS-person or patient’ were used most frequently, with the former appearing in 57.38% of articles and the latter appearing in 30.80% of articles.

Conclusion Despite numerous guidelines and requirements for the use of PCL in research, our findings suggest that an alarming number of HIV-related articles are not following these guidelines. This is concerning because this labelling likely contributes to the persistence of stigma in HIV-centred care. The intentional use of person-centred language in medical research has the potential to minimise the use of stigmatising language among medical professionals, in medical education, in medical records and patient encounters, and thus reduce stigma.

  • HIV
  • AIDS
  • HIV infections
  • public health

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request.

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