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Choice of language can impede access to medicines both for the treatment of pain and opioid dependence. Referring to a person as a “substance abuser” rather than “a person with substance use disorder” evokes stigma and there is evidence that it reduces patients’ access to appropriate treatment.

Moreover, imprecise terminology may result in misunderstanding of the nature of pain treatment and the management of substance use disorder. In turn, politicians and administrators may establish irrational public health policies, and patients may decide not to take their medicines.

In many countries the barriers to accessing pain treatment and treatment of opioid dependence are huge. Yet non-medical use of psychoactive substances and untreated moderate and severe pain are considered public health priorities. Clear, unambiguous, non-stigmatising terminology is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one way to ensure access to controlled medicines.

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Thumbnail: Flickr CC Jamie