The problem with the word “patient”

If you trace the origins of the word patient, you will find two very sad Latin and Greek verbs meaning “to suffer.” Then there’s its homophone, patience, a quality almost certainly required by anyone dealing with today’s health care system. Also less than positive. What concerns me isn’t the word itself, although I am personally not a fan. The real problem is the tone that the word sets, and right now, it’s less about healing and more about, well, suffering.

It’s already been proven that word choice can influence people’s opinions. A study at Stanford showed that the words used to describe a crime actually dictate how a society deals with it. And if it’s true for crime, it’s certainly true in politics, where word choice can make or break a vote. So if words carry that transformative power in these spheres, just imagine what can happen in health care.

“patient” for the acute care situation and “client” for other situations,

Of the alternatives offered, client has historically ranked at the top, especially in the therapy crowd. They cite the empowerment that the word evokes. Patients are passive beings floating along in the system. The disease happens TO them, and because of this, they can’t become active participants in the healing process. On the other hand, although patient carries that pesky suffering thing, it also alludes to the support, sympathy, care and humanity needed in the treatment process. The label client also makes reference to the more capitalist side of medicine, and perhaps this is where things start breaking down. Perhaps the unspoken reason that people like this alternative vocabulary in the health care system is that there is a fundamental discomfort with the idea that hospitals are businesses.

This is not a plea for political correctness, but instead a suggestion that a fundamental shift in how our health care system talks about its users could have an impact on both the treatment and attitudes of those receiving care. Flipping the word from something passive as patient so something a bit more empowered like client could go a long way. Perhaps Rudyard Kipling said it best with his quote “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”