Sunday, April 22, 2012

Healthcare, Health-Care, and Health Care

  • Are you a healthcare professional, a health-care professional, or a health care professional?
  • Are you interested in health care, health-care, or healthcare?
  • Are you a toh-MAY-toh, a toh-MAH-toh, or TOH-muh-toh?

I hope this post will answer all of those questions. Except the last one.

Noun or adjective?

The first item to consider is whether "health care" is being used as a noun or an adjective. When the words are used as a noun — as in "The clinic provides excellent health care" — the words should remain two words, not hyphenated.

But when "health care" is being used as an adjective, things get a bit trickier. (Yes, it's trickier, not more tricky.)

The Chicago Manual of Style and other sources generally apply a simple rule to constructs in which the words "health" and "care" are adjectives describing a third noun. If the phrase without hyphens can be easily misunderstood, then hyphens should be used.

For instance, is that 1996 Fiat a little-used car or a little used car?

Otherwise, the rule goes, leave hyphens out of it.

Pretty good rule.

From (top to bottom) CBS News,
American Healthcare, and
The Washington Post

So, why so many variations?

Why is it, then, that if a pretty good rule exists there isn't more consistency when it comes to health care?

I think it's because people are unsure what to use, and I include myself in that list.

In the past I've been inclined to use "healthcare" when the words are used as adjectives, because I haven't wanted to cause confusion. But lately I've been reconsidering.

I think leaving health care as separate words, regardless of the use, is the better way to go.

The words are seen so frequently together that the reader now sees them as a unit, like ballot box and child care. So I think I'm officially in the separate-words camp.

For now.