Nephrology Renal or Kidney?

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Nephrology Renal or Kidney?


In any field, terminology and precise definition usually bring clarity. But in our case failure to agree on terminology has brought some confusion and no clarity especially for outsiders looking in.

Renal as the adjective identifying matters related to the kidney has been widely used for hundreds of years (its roots are French or perhaps Latin). We remain familiar with renal physiology and renal failure for example.

When the first professional society in the world for those interested in the kidney was founded in 1950 in the UK, The Renal Association was an obvious choice for its name.

Although English is now the international medical language, renal has the advantage of being familiar to many of our European colleagues  – for example French reine, Spanish riñón, Italian rene

The term nephrology (derived from Greek, nephros = kidney) emerged in the 1950s as a clinical speciality focused on kidney disease and its treatment began to emerge.  Who first coined the term ‘nephrology’ remains a matter of opinion, with more than one active claimant. This will remain an arcane historical mystery since all the protagonists have now died.

By the time other major professional societies were being founded the preferred term was changing: International Society of Nephrology (founded 1960), American Society of Nephrology (founded 1967). Although other choices are still made, for example European Renal Association.

Around the world almost all clinical specialists are known as nephrologists. The UK is the exception  – most are known as nephrologists but a significant minority are appointed as renal physicians. Some academics style themselves as professor of nephrology, others prefer professor of renal medicine.

This ‘flip flop’ of terminology can be a minor irritant among professionals involved in the field.  But for public facing communication  – with patients & carers, with the uninvolved general public, with politicians, in advocacy – it can be confusing.

This has led to a new vocabulary intended to clarify and simplify:  kidney disease, kidney patient, kidney failure, kidney transplant, kidney unit, World Kidney Day.

And for nephrologists being asked to describe their day job …… kidney doctor.

Some modernisers suggest this should all be simplified and purified – and kidney should replace nephrology or renal. This seems very unlikely.

Last Updated on October 24, 2022 by John Feehally