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A PSA on the word ‘Emergent’

Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.

Words are important.  For a radiologist who communicates through the written word, perhaps more to me than others.   But the words everyone in this profession choose mean a lot. To our colleagues and to our clients.  Sometimes we select our words well.  Other times we are lazy.  But the word “emergent” in particular is one that veterinarians seem to entirely misunderstand.  I hear every day about “emergent cases” and each time I end up feeling like Inigo Montoya.

princess bride gif I don't think that means what you think it means

Emergent Cases

Veterinarians use emergent to describe cases which need to be seen immediately.  For example, “there is an emergent hemoabdomen we need an ultrasound on.”  

But this is wrong. 

It confuses the words emergent, emergency and urgent.  It might seem trivial, and heck it probably is, but if we are striving to be the best we can be, there are better ways of choosing our words.  And if we are communicating outside our profession it would be smart to get terms right.

What does Emergent Mean?

Emergent is defined as something which is coming into being. There are definitely emerging diseases in our profession.  Novel viruses and bacteria for example.  But not cases that are an emergency or urgent. This distinction was discussed almost a decade ago in the blog “AMA Style Insider.”

This post sums up the situation nicely.

An emergency is an unexpected event that needs immediate action. For example, an emergency of a cat presenting in respiratory distress.

An urgent situation is one that requires quick, but not immediate action.  For example, a dog presenting with a small laceration requires urgent care.

An emergent situation is the process of coming into being.  For example, in 2019, SARS-CoV-2  was an emergent disease.  When an individual presents in respiratory distress from COVID-19 it is not emergent.  It is an emergency.

The error of considering ‘emergent’ to be the adjectival form of ‘emergency’ is common only in medical writing, but it is becoming widespread. ‘Emergent’ properly means ‘emerging’ and normally refers to events that are just beginning—barely noticeable rather than catastrophic. ‘Emergency’ is an adjective as well as a noun, so rather than writing ‘emergent care,’ use the homely ‘emergency care.'

Correct Choices

I would love to see veterinarians change the way we use these terms.  They are not interchangeable.  We have perfectly good words for emergency and urgent cases.  Let’s not continue to misuse emergent.  We are better than that.

And yes… this is the hill I’ve come to die on.

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