Published on May 05, 2020

Power of words: OH switches from social distancing to ‘physical distancing’

Renee Beasley Jones, Messenger-Inquirer

Owensboro Health officials are following the World Health Organization’s lead when it comes to the all-important phrase “social distancing.”

Late last month, WHO quit using that phrase in favor of “physical distancing.”

During a March 20 briefing, WHO officials discussed the switch. They want people to stay at least six feet apart to avoid spreading the coronavirus, but the organization’s officials emphasized the importance of feeling socially connected, especially during a worldwide crisis.

“So find ways to do that, find ways through the internet and through different social media to remain connected because your mental health going through this is just as important as your physical health,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of WHO said during the press conference.

Words are important in public messaging, said Rachel Tesreau, a licensed professional clinical counselor practice manager-OH behavioral services.

‘Social’ vs. ‘Physical’

“Use of the phrase ‘social’ vs. ‘physical’ distancing can have an important impact on how this behavior is perceived and practiced by others,” Tesreau said. “For example, physical distancing reminds us to physically stay apart from others, focusing on the importance of 6 feet apart, wearing masks and hygiene. However, social engagement is a significant factor in emotional well-being and remains especially important during this uncertain time.”

At OH, the phrase physical distancing is now the norm and is used with employees, patients and the community.

To encourage businesses and other organizations to use the same wording, OH has designed signs and made them available on the health system’s website. To download and print the signs, go to

“From a behavioral health-care position, distinguishing between social distancing and physical distancing is crucial,” said Lionel Phelps, vice president of continuous quality improvement at RiverValley Behavioral Health. “Research clearly tells us that our physical and emotional health and well-being are dependent on loving relationships and physical touch. Especially during an unprecedented time like this, we need one another more than ever.”

Take that extra step to connect

Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to connect with colleagues, friends and loved ones in a meaningful way, Phelps said. Through social platforms, such as FaceTime and Zoom, people can hear voices and see facial expressions.

When residents go out in public, they may want to take that extra step to appear friendly and to connect with passersby, he said.

“While we are physical distancing, we can be intentional about waving and saying hello from behind our (face) masks,” Phelps said. “These behaviors activate our social engagement system, which lowers our stress response and are important contributors to our mental wellness.”

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering; Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital; Owensboro Health Twin Lakes Medical Center; the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprised of over 200 providers at more than 20 locations; three outpatient Healthplex facilities, a certified medical fitness facility, the Healthpark; a surgical weight loss center and program, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center.

On average each year, we have 16,000 inpatient admissions, deliver 2,000 babies and provide the region’s only Level III NICU. Owensboro Health physicians perform nearly 24,000 surgical procedures, including nearly 200 open-heart surgeries. Our physicians and staff have 70,000 Emergency Department visits, more than a million outpatient visits annually. Visit our home page for more information.

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