Patient, Person, Customer, Member; Which one is Appropriate?

By | April 9, 2019

One of my earliest blogs discusses the difference between using the words person and patient to describe those we serve. We use numerous descriptions, depending on what part of the healthcare ecosystem and the message one is delivering. Health plans frequently refer to those they serve as members, whereas physicians and hospitals use the term patients, patient advocacy groups describe them as human beings or persons, which is the most appropriate, and finally, to denote a more market dynamic, many are utilizing the terms, consumers or customers.

None of these terms is correct in all instances except for “human being,” which is, the term most infrequently used since it is the most nondescript.  When I am sick, I desire to be a patient, treated with respect; when I am well, I wish to be a person and not a patient. When I prefer healthcare to be a “market, I want to be a customer or consumer, and if I am joining a group of like-minded people, I want to be a member. But no matter what, I ALWAYS want to be treated like a human being.

Undoubtedly, we can argue all day about the correct term. Paramount is the exhibition of reverence in remembering that all those we serve are human beings and require respect. Which is why we need to focus on collaborating with them for the best outcomes for their health and wellness, and based on what is important to them.

Healthcare does not follow true market dynamics, as our laws mandate treatment under certain situations, the negotiation of prices is between a provider and a third party, and those that receive services are separated from the payment of the full costs. In addition, the concept that the customer is always right does not hold credence when it comes to what is the most efficacious treatment option. However, this also does not suggest that shared decision-making is not important; it only delineates that the simple term “customer” is not always appropriate. For example, asking for antibiotics for a viral infection is inappropriate regardless of what the “customer” wishes because such treatment affects others in regard to the increase in antibiotic resistant organisms.

Consumer, one who consumes our services, is correct but can be construed that healthcare is a pure commodity which is not true. Health and wellness have complicated situations that require more than just a pure product can deliver, while other aspects act much more analogous to a commodity.

When one is sick, patient centricity and patient-centered care sounds fantastic. However, at other times, it is more appropriate to consider person centeredness, as the appropriate services focus on wellness, not illness. At those times,” person” might be a better term than “patient.”

Choosing our words is critical since they contain the power to either embrace or alienate. I do not believe we will all agree on one specific correct term, as they change based on the situation. But, let us be aware of these dynamics and attempt to use the right word at the proper time or, at least, define the terms when being utilized, explain the choice, and be cognizant that not all might deem them appropriate. If we are transparent in our thoughts and communications, we are much less apt to offend.