This is the tenth entry in my in-depth interview with a patient undergoing cancer treatment.
“Is she a patient or a client?” Many of us have debated the semantics used when describing one of the most vital stakeholders of your organization.
I’m still in a holding pattern waiting for my next round of chemo because my blood levels are too far off to do another dose right now. I’m exhausted and frustrated, but am coping the best I can. Today, an hour before my appointment, I stopped at the cafeteria in the clinic. While standing in line in the cafeteria, I spotted a big white board with the words “patient” and “client” written across the top. It said something to the effect of “Share what these two words mean to you and how they are different.” I wrote that when I think of the word “patient” I think of tubes and hospital gowns and the loss of power. But when I see the word “client,” I think of a contractual agreement between two people in which a service is provided. It was very interesting that someone thought to get the consumers’ opinions about the two words. You don’t think about it, but they are so different. I felt glad to be able to offer my interpretation. Who knows, it might just resonate with someone where it can make a difference.
When I asked Elizabeth if she had ever contemplated the difference between the two words before, she said, “Absolutely. As a psychotherapist, I had clients.” She continued:
In that setting, a successful treatment plan was based on a contractual agreement between the two of us. I don’t always feel that way in hospitals. When I am the patient, I am clearly at the mercy of someone else who holds the cards. They decide things for me, not with me. They do things to me and I rarely have a real choice. It is often a subordinate relationship. The word “client” implies that I am a consumer with free will and the ability to make choices. It may sound insignificant to some people, but the difference between the two words has a profound visceral reaction for me. The mere act of putting on a hospital gown creates that visceral reaction. To me, it depicts that I am no longer Elizabeth—a strong, intelligent, professional woman. Putting on the gown sends the signal that I am a sick person who is about to be poked and prodded. I know I’ve had a long and complex history, but, for me, the gown is like a shroud of depression. Patients wear gowns.
The distinction that Elizabeth makes between the words “patient” and “client” is significant on many levels. It reminds me that words are powerful. For years, I’ve listened to providers and healthcare leaders argue about the use of the words “client” or “customer” instead of the word “patient.” We’ve argued and debated, but rarely have I seen the consumer drawn into the discussion like Elizabeth was with the use of a simple white board in a hospital cafeteria. Maybe it’s time to ask your public to define the difference. What they share could help redefine the experience.