Why we need categories

We like to think that doctors, lawyers, and programmers create terminologies out of thin air to suspend belief that they know so much and are indeed highly valued members of the society. As much as we like to believe that everything we don't understand is either evil or god, terms exist for good reasons.

I wrote this because I need to remind myself that terms are important. In pharmacy you remember a lot of $*#(% things, things that are abstract and may never be seen throughout your entire life. You DON'T want to see EVERY cases described in the Basic Pathology textbook! Rationalizing with myself brings enlightenment, and thus this post.

I shall use this simple statement to illustrate my arguments: 

"He's on NSAIDs."

Terms make high quality and rapid communication

Over the ears of a trained health professional, this statement tells very much regarding the patient. It tells that the patient is on a very common class of drug (not e.g. latest high-tech comprehensive rehab programme); he is suffering from pain; the pain is supposedly due to inflammation (not neurological or psychological etc. in origin); he must take care when using other (topical?) NSAIDs; he is also quite likely to have an infection followed by fever; the pain is not severe enough to warrant a steroid or opioid regimen; etc etc.

Try retelling every bit of this to every other health professionals or students that need to hear it.

  • You will miss / not include some facts.
  • It is very time-consuming to just communicate these ideas.
  • Errors in communication is more likely (more ideas to communicate == more error points).

Terms eliminate ambiguity

Did you just looked up on Wikipedia about NSAIDs? Hey, I know you did, so you might get that:

  • NSAID stands for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
  • NSAID is a type of analgesic.
  • Paracetamol / Panadol is not an NSAID.
  • Gastric disturbance is a common side effect.

This eliminates ambiguities (compared to not having the "NSAID" handler around). Imagine a layperson asking these questions:

  • I think my doctor is putting me in a very scary experiment. Is it really just a drug? (Yes, by definition)
  • I heard the"S" in "NSAID" stands for steroid, which I heard is not healthy. Is it a steroid? (No, by definition)
  • Is it true that it works by doing funny things on your brain? (No, you must be referring to opioids / narcotics)
  • I hear painkillers can get you addicted! Can I? (No!!! Not this one)
  • Are there any other drugs beside NSAIDs that also treat pain? (Definitely)
  • I have Panadol, can I substitute my NSAID with it? (Well, Panadol is not an NSAID but it treats the same thing, however if your doctor gives you an NSAID then probably Panadol won't be strong enough)
  • He suffers from liver damage, is the drug causing it? (Probably not)

These kind of yes/no questions appear from time to time, and having a solid categorisation helps a lot. Notice that these discriminations apply to all members of NSAID class.

Terms protect the uninitiated from scare and information overload

This is the good side of "suspending belief that they know so much and are indeed highly valued members of the society". The thing is, this "belief" are kind of useful. You just need to trust your doctor / lawyer etc. to do their job, and you are good to go. These people will give you information that is necessary, which is not all, about NSAIDs. Their job -- not yours -- is to know everything about NSAIDs (not the terms, but the concepts linked to NSAIDs such as usage, precautions, adverse effects).

You also do not want to know every single documented side effects of NSAIDs, because it will scare you like hell such that you don't trust any medicine any more.

Another way to look at this is that understanding of the term separates the uninitiated very clearly. If you don't know what NSAID is, you are most probably not a health professional (note that the inverse may not be true). That means the doctors, nurses, and pharmacists talk to you in an entirely different manner, compared to when they talk among themselves. They will try to use layman terms.

You don't want them to lose productivity by talking among themselves using layman terms.

Terms allow us to think on higher level

Let's follow that statement by another from the patients:

The sprain still feels very painful, do you have stronger pills?

Usually the thought process goes like this: he is taking NSAIDs -> there are various kinds of NSAIDs (hmm... that means I can give him stronger NSAIDs) -> NSAIDs are analgesics (another term!) -> there are various kinds of analgesics -> I can give him stronger analgesics

In a trained mind, this kind of thought process can occur almost instantly and subconsciously. However, it will not function without proper categorisation system! By clustering objects in terms, we can better find associations and is a critical part in stuff like problem solving and research.

Notice that we easily visualize the "hierarchy of analgesics" in our mind and get information from it. This is simply impossible if your mind is only filled with drug names without associations.

It also brings innovation and ideas: can we develop another NSAID? Can we develop another analgesic?

TL;DR

Terms simplify communication (among the initiated), increase productivity, and enhances thinking, compared to not having them.

7 comments

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