Are you a patient or a client?

Depending who you’re asking, you might not always get the same answer.

I had just begun working at a psychiatric hospital in Ontario when this quirky word suddenly became part of my vocabulary – client. I had met countless patients before but these clients, it would seem, represented a new hurdle. What is a client? What do they want? Do they like the Raptors? Do they drink water?

Well as I would come to learn, clients are not so different from patients. Clients breath air, live in cities, and walk among us. They suffer from depression, anxiety, mania, and psychosis. They have addictions.

So what makes a client? Themselves.

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Medicine is rooted in a millennia of traditions. Some of the principles of medicine still used today date back as far as the Ancient Greeks. Hippocrates, and the Hippocratic oath, remain a quasi-initiation at the front end of most medical schools. Leonardo DaVinci, and his drawings of the human body, can be considered to still have an impact on the field of medicine today.

With all history, we tend to focus on the highlights, and leave the dark corners undiscussed and ignored.

Paternalism is part of medicine’s darkest legacy. What is paternalism? Here’s a long, winded answer.

In broad strokes, medicine is super #$%&ing complicated. No doctor understands all of medicine perfectly, and we certainly don’t expect a patient/client to understand all, most, or even some, of medicine. As a physician, my job is to explain the relevant information to you, so that you can make your own decisions. I have the responsibility to give you the required information, and to ensure that whatever I do, is in your best interests. This results in something called a fiduciary relationship, meaning that if you need a test ordered, it is on me to order that test, even if it’s seven o’clock in the evening on a Friday and the Blue Jays are about to take their first swing. Fiduciary relationships are a great and essential part of medicine. I reiterate my comments on just how complex medicine is! However, there are also some unwanted side effects.

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As a doctor, if you are under my care, as we would say in the field, I am taking ownership of your care. This doesn’t mean I own you or your property, but basically that I am the captain steering the boat that is your health into harbour. Ownership in many ways is how things get done in medicine. If nobody feels responsible, than who would make sure your x-ray was ordered or that the proper consultations had been made, after all. Like all captains, we have a natural aversion to back seat drivers. “I know how to lay the anchor, so bug off!” kind of deal. We can even start feeling this way when the patient has different opinions from our own. Sometimes, we can even have a natural tendency to dismiss a patient’s thoughts when they conflict with our own. This would be paternalism, or in other words, a medical care model where the doctor’s wishes are given the highest priority, although presumably to save your life (whether or not you want your life saved – a whole other discussion there).

In another time, only decades ago, you might find that this is actually how medicine was practiced. What the doctor says goes. Forced sterilization and lobotomy being some more infamous examples. Today, we know better.

You are the captain, and I am the first mate. I help you navigate, but it’s up to you to steer. As a physician, it’s my job to listen to your concerns and give them thoughtful reflection, no matter how they may conflict with my own thoughts. This doesn’t mean ordering unsafe medications or needless tests, but giving an honest, thoughtful, patient-centred approach to care in all respects. This is the opposite of paternalistic medicine.

So what does this have to do with the whole patient/client conundrum?

Patient is a physician-born word. It’s language we have always used to describe those we care for and it’s comfortable. But some people take offense to that word, and that’s OK. This is particularly important in psychiatry. The reasons for this? They’re many and complex, the stigma associated with being a “mental health patient,” born out of 20th century mass media being the most surface-level example. In psychiatry, the word “client” carries particular meaning, and has more voluntary connotations than “patient” can sometimes imply, given the history of (at times necessary) coercive treatment in psychiatry. The point is not every “patient” likes the word, and they have a right to not be addressed that way. Mental illnesses are to many, after all, not considered illnesses, and people would prefer to describe their experiences as something akin to psychological distress.

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At the hospital I worked at in Ontario, the alternative term adopted by the institution was ultimately “client.” (As a side note, we borrowed this word from out psychologist colleagues!) They chose to institute an institution-wide movement to address every single patient as a client. As you can see from reading this blog, I obviously don’t do that. But I also do not call everyone a patient. The reality is, I am more comfortable with the word patient and it’s been what I’ve always used. But the moment my client or patient or glerblegerker let’s me know that they disagree with the idea of being a patient, I’m quick to change my language with them. It’s about them, after all.

So you tell me – are you a patient or a client?



Editor’s note: Mental illnesses are true illnesses from my perspective, but not because of any of the particular symptoms you have – hear and chat with the voices in the empty room all you want. To me, your experience is an illness when it begins to interfere with your functioning and safety.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

One thought on “Are you a patient or a client?

  1. Client has been the most commonly used term in community settings where I’ve worked. I sometimes hear the term consumer used, but I’m not a fan of that, as to me that implies an economic relationship. For myself I use the term patient, because it seems most appropriate for that particular role identity. I would be a patient if I was seeing being treated for a cardiac condition, so why would it be different for a psychiatric condition? That being said, I have zero tolerance for any health care professional who doesn’t treat me as at least an equal in my care.

    Liked by 1 person

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