Addicts and Admits: Metonymy in Medical Students’ Reflective Writing

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3 Scopus citations


Phenomenon:Metonymy refers to the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for the name of the object or person being described. In medical contexts, this may involve referring to a person as a disease, body part, or other health-related noun. In this study, we explore the use of metonymy in medical students’ reflective writing. Approach: Using content analysis, we identified all usages of metonymy in a sample of 802 medical student reflective essays. We analyzed them for associated themes and used the Fisher’s exact test to compare frequencies of clinical ethics themes that occurred in the essays with metonymy to those without metonymy. Findings: Metonymy was used 60 times in the essays. The uses were grouped into thematic clusters of substance abuse (n = 27), illness (n = 9), body part (n = 4), clinical status (n = 6), reproductive health (n = 5), challenging clinical situations (n = 6), and other thoughts on patients as people (n = 3). Several ethical themes associated with essays using metonymy (p <.05): moral distress, substance abuse, adequate treatment, jumping to conclusions, awakening, and pain. Insights: Metonymy was relatively uncommon, and some students explicitly described the practice as dehumanizing to patients. Even so, metonymy did present in a variety of forms and was used most frequently to describe individuals with substance use disorders. Essays involving metonymy were more likely to describe a scenario that elicited moral distress in the students, which may indicate that metonymy occurs more frequently in some troubling situations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)23-33
Number of pages11
JournalTeaching and Learning in Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • medical education
  • moral distress
  • person-first language
  • reflective writing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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