You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: iatrogenic

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


A person goes into the hospital for what is described as a routine procedure, something goes awry during surgery, and the patient winds up in an extended stay for treatment of something completely different from the original disorder. That person has sustained an iatrogenic injury.

Iatrogenic (pronounced eye-a-truh-GEN-ik) means “caused by the diagnosis, manner, or treatment of a physician,” the Random House Dictionary says. It originally meant “rising from a patient’s suggestibility to a doctor’s words or actions,” according to Webster’s Third.

The roots are Greek, iatros, “physician,” “medicine,” and genes, “born,” “produced.”

In my trade, we worry about what might be called iatrogenic editing: An editor opens up a text to correct an error and in the process inadvertently introduces another one. And if it is a copy editor, the mistake may occur in such an advanced stage of the process that it is unlikely to be caught before publication.

Example: “Accounting for the health-care bill” by Andrew Batavia in The Lancet, November 1, 2003: “Of course, people with serious health problems need access to health care. However, we must recognise that there are risks associated with such access in the form of iatrogenic illness (health problems caused by the health-care process).”

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