In French there is a phrase "désert médical", which means an area (usually rural) devoid of medical staff and hospitals.

The literal translation into English would be "medical desert". Is this phrase in use in English? Or is there an equivalent phrase that is in use? If no to both, would it be understood by an English speaker?

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    How can a monoglot English-speaker tell you the answer to your question - could you explain what the French mean by désert medical ? Unless you mean medical desert in which case you are good to go. Jan 10 '20 at 16:38
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    Is this like a product called Fortipudding that my wife, a pharmacy technician, told me about? Jan 10 '20 at 16:58
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    Can you please explain what désert medical means in French? (I've never heard the term "medical desert" or "désert medical," so it's probably not the best phrase to use in English.) Jan 10 '20 at 16:59
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    Sorry, I was thinking of a medical dessert. Jan 10 '20 at 17:26
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    The title says Desert médical, the question body says désert medical, and one of the comments says désert médical. As a non-Francophone, I'm wondering which of these combinations of accents is correct.
    – shoover
    Jan 11 '20 at 0:02

This concept is still too new for there to be a single accepted term.

Take a look at this article on CNN: "Millions of Americans live nowhere near a hospital, jeopardizing their lives"

The problem has been exacerbated as rural hospitals struggle to stay open. Since 2010, 81 rural hospitals have closed in the United States, according to a rural health research program at the University of North Carolina. Another 673 rural hospitals are vulnerable to shutting down.

Areas without hospitals are called "hospital deserts."

The author of that article, written in 2017, felt the need to explain the definition of the term. The assumption was that the audience would be unfamiliar with it.

Other sources will use either "medical desert", "healthcare desert", or more specific terms like "primary care desert"

  • Sure, any of those work.
    – Lambie
    Jan 10 '20 at 17:07
  • However, the starting point for all this is a French expression. In European countries, including France and the UK, the starting point for medical treatment is (in English) the 'General Practioner' or just Doctor. It seems that In the US, many people start with hospitals. But the health anchor in France and the UK is the medical practice, and it is the absence of these much smaller units in rural areas that that is called a medical desert. There may, of course not be a hospital either, but that is not the issue. In the US, 'hospital desert makes more sense.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 17 '20 at 20:50

We have the term food desert, meaning a geographical region, often in an inner city but also in rural areas, where there are few or no full-service grocery stores and therefore it is more difficult than it ought to be for residents to buy nutritious food.

The term medical desert is not especially common, but I would immediately assume it is similar to a food desert: a region where there are few medical providers and so medical care is difficult to obtain. And a quick google search indicates that the term has been used in a few web sites and publications with this meaning.

From the comments it seems the meaning is similar to the French term you asked about.


A fairly common practice is being followed in the construction of this metaphorical use of désert médicale. The word désert is being used to denote any place completely lacking something. So the Larousse dictionnaire Francaise gives a metaphorical use of désert thus:

used for a place to be deserted, uninhabited: an empty or little frequented place : * les bureaux vers midi c’est le désert* (difficult to render the expression exactly: "The offices towards midday, it's desert.")

However, it is close enough to see that the use of désert as a metaphor for the absence of something is well-established and wide enough to embrace the absence of medical facilities.

English is no less fitted to the use of metaphor than is French. Merriam Webster gives the metaphorical use of the word desert as one of its definitions (entry 3 of four).

  1. A desolate or forbidding area.

    example: lost in a desert of doubt

This is not exactly the use cited by Marion, but it is in the right direction.

The Cambridge English dictionary gets much closer in its examples.

A cultural, intellectual, etc. desert (disapproving).

example: This town is a cultural desert.

The etcetera in the Cambridge definition seems to me to establish clearly enough that anglophones would have no difficulty in understanding any reasonable extension of this metaphorical use of the word desert to any regrettable absence of something desirable, just as francophones do. Rural villages might from the closure of shops, schools, pubs etc, be said to have been turned into social deserts, and, from the closing down of rural bus services into desert islands.

So yes, certainly you can translate the expression into English.

  • You could mention the word "medical" too. To my British ears it's understandable, but not quite right. "Healthcare" might fit better.
    – AndyT
    Jan 17 '20 at 10:03
  • @AndyT You may be right, but you will have to forgive me if, at my advanced age, and although I have reluctantly had to accept the adjectivisation of nouns as a regrettable fact, I think that ‘medical desert’ wins hands down for crisp linguistic wit. By the way the wit comes from the French. I’m not claiming wit.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 17 '20 at 10:16

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