In the United States, healthcare services are largely delivered by private businesses that sell their services to healthcare consumers. The healthcare consumer (or customer) has historically been called the “patient”. Is there a distinction between the two names? Is one name better than the other?
1. The word “patient” comes from the Latin word “patiens” and means “one who suffers”. All healthcare consumers only suffer when they see their bills!
Until recently, people by and large only sought the services of a doctor if they were suffering ( what I call after sickness care). Today, many healthy people seek before sickness health care as well. Calling the healthcare consumer a “patient” is therefore an outdated and inaccurate name for people who seek healthcare services. I am not suffering when I get immunizations, preventive screenings, and nutritional counseling. It therefore, makes more sense to call those who seek services from healthcare businesses with the more general appellation of healthcare consumers or even healthcare customers.
2. The word “patient” is a name that is “owned” by the healthcare provider; you are the doctor’s patient.
I found it interesting to read in Wikipedia the following reason why the name healthcare consumer is not preferred; namely, “such terminology may be offensive to those receiving public health care as it implies a business relationship. (In at least some countries, it is illegal to practice business within any public hospital)”. First of all, whether we in the United States like it or not, the vast majority of us receive our health care services from private businesses and therefore a business relationship DOES exist. The only Americans who might be “offended” by the notion that healthcare services and “business” are connected are those who receive health care from the Veterans Administration. For the rest of us, our government is proud of the connection between business and healthcare delivery. Therefore in the United States, healthcare consumer (or customer) should be the preferred name.
We all hear about the doctor/patient “relationship” whenever the government tries to regulate any part of doctors’ business practices. Doctors do not want anyone to interfere with their ability to deliver healthcare services as they see fit. Doctors market themselves in the media as people (not the businesses that they are) who have the best interests of their “patients” first. The implication is that doctors put the patient’s well-being ahead of their conflicting interest to maximize income and profits.
By using the name “patient” outside the doctor’s place of business, our rights as healthcare consumers become subordinate to those of the doctor. The doctor is seen as the protective parent and the patient, the child needing the doctor’s protection. The name “patient” therefore infantilizes while “healthcare consumer” empowers.
If a doctors wants to call their customers “patients”, they are free to do so since the name belongs to them anyway. Outside of the doctors’ offices, patients should be called healthcare consumers, a description that “belongs” to us and allows us to stand apart from any particular healthcare business. As healthcare consumers we are free to be treated like all other “consumers” who have rights and privileges as such.
3. In buying health care goods and services, the healthcare consumer comes in contact with several businesses in addition to those where the name “patient” applies.
The healthcare consumer is the buyer of goods or services from health insurance companies, medical device manufacturers, and drug manufacturers. As healthcare consumers, these buyer/seller relationships are often just as important as the doctor/patient one. For example, very few Americans can afford to buy healthcare services outside the restrictions imposed by individual health insurance plans. The health insurance companies that sell these plans dictate what services the healthcare consumer can and cannot buy from healthcare providers (with some consumer protections from the government). These plans also dictate which providers the healthcare consumer can and cannot use and still receive insurance benefits. Except in the individual (non-group) health insurance marketplace, the healthcare consumer is not the primary customer of the health insurance company that sets the services the healthcare consumer can have. The primary customer of health insurance companies are governments (federal and state) and employers. In interacting with health insurance companies, the healthcare consumer is NOT the health insurance company’s “patient”.
Call me a Healthcare Consumer
When referring to the buyers of healthcare goods and services, the name healthcare consumer is more accurate terminology than “patient”, especially outside healthcare providers’ businesses. I have no problem if doctors call me their “patient” even when it does not wholly reflect why I seek healthcare services today. This name belongs to doctors and they are free to use it.
In addition to healthcare providers, the healthcare consumer buys goods and services from other healthcare businesses that are important. Calling me the health insurance company’s patient would be wrong and diminishes my status as someone with rights and privileges of a consumer.
We can all think of many places where name is important. For example, being called a boy or girl when we are adult men and women infantilizes us and makes us think that we do not deserve the rights and privileges afforded those who are called men and women. In my next blog post, I will explore how being called patients and not healthcare consumers has hurt us when it comes to our rights and privileges.