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Almost every industry has changed the term for the people they serve. We are now passengers, guests, members, customers, and more. The big exception? Health care. To those in the field, whether it’s clinicians or researchers or pharmaceutical marketers, we are all “patients” — even when we feel fine and aren’t in a hospital or doctor’s office.

It’s time to stop categorizing people this way, which puts them in submissive and dehumanizing roles.

Imagine what would happen if clinicians called the people they treat “clients” or “activated consumers” or “partners.” With that mindset, they move away from implying what they will do to or for them, and instead describe what they will do with them as proactive partners.

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These new terms aren’t just more respectful. They’re more in touch with the times. Today’s activated consumers are ready to take more responsibility for their health care.

In a health care consumer survey conducted by my colleagues at Deloitte in April and May of 2020, just weeks into the Covid-19 shutdowns in the U.S., 72% of respondents noted that they understand their health and well-being needs and actively work with their doctors to set goals that work for them. And more than 50% said they are comfortable telling their doctors if they disagree with them.

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Health is an essential resource and most people want to take charge of it.

With health care clients in the driver’s seat, they become the captains of their own destiny by working with a health care team they trust — and can communicate with — as partners in their health journeys. They hold themselves accountable for their choices, and they advance past today’s episodic interactions with health care to continuous connectivity, reaching out to their care teams whenever and however they need.

This empowered approach can help individuals transform their focus from disease to wellness.

When I opened my first primary care office in Tallahassee, Fla., my practice grew quickly. Fresh out of residency, I was younger than most of the adults seeking my care. To bridge any age gaps, I created a dialogue with them. I wanted to acknowledge my expertise about health care while also respecting their wisdom about their own health, bodies, and needs. I believed that having that kind of conversation could be the most significant way that health care providers set expectations for the client-care team relationship.

I sat down with each new client and said, “Your ship is your body, and you are the captain of the ship. Your job is to keep your ship in the best possible condition to take you through your life’s voyage. Your body is the only one you’ll get. You may have the opportunity to get a tune up, or swap a part, but you don’t get a whole new body. This conversation is to see if I qualify to be your first mate or adviser.”

I tried to quickly establish the roles we would each play in this relationship. I would tell clients it is my role to advise them, present a relevant care plan, prescribe the most appropriate medications and testing, suggest specialists when needed, and recommend the maintenance that includes preventive care and lifestyle changes. Their job is to decide whether or not to implement my suggestions.

The response? “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

A few people never returned. But those who stayed learned about their health as well as their ailments. We — the clients, their support networks of family and friends, and the clinical team that included several colleagues and me — worked together so clients could take more control and responsibility for their health.

Within nine months, our daily schedule was full and we couldn’t take on new patients. Despite having double the number of clients of other primary care practices in the region, ours had higher-than-average satisfaction scores. I was perceived as spending eight more minutes with clients than my colleagues, even though the reality was that I spent less time.

How was that possible? It was the way my staff and I managed our workflow, the structure of visits, and the processes we put in place so everyone could work at the top of their licenses. This left me additional time to focus on individual client interactions and listen to their concerns.

Our clients owned their care plans and, as members of the team, helped measure results and suggested adjustments along the way. That’s different from the way things work in most clinical environments, where several individual plans might be created by different physicians, often without input from the individual or their family.

Many, though not all, of our clients achieved significant results such as managing blood sugar and blood pressure, losing weight, and becoming more active because of the environment and culture we created.

It was exciting for me and my colleagues to watch clients learn and incorporate real-time care plans that not only slowed disease but, for those who changed their lifestyles, even reversed it. The people we most empowered ended up visiting us the least because they improved and better managed their health — as it should be.

Even though I delivered my first client-centric care more than 20 years ago, the idea of focusing care on the person — today it’s often called patient-centric care — is still in its infancy. From a humanizing health care perspective, prioritizing this shift creates rewards for all stakeholders, such as more satisfying experiences with the health care system, better outcomes, more efficiency in the system, better access to care, and a more sustainable ecosystem.

I have seen firsthand the advantages that can emerge from this shift and believe it is an essential piece for humanizing health care. By embracing a client-centric model, the various players within the industry will be able to restore the human connection in health care; empower clients to take charge of their health, disease, lifestyle, and care options; and inject compassion and empathy into the science of medicine.

To start this journey, it is necessary to consider people as “clients” rather than “patients,” a word I am doing my best to banish from my vocabulary.

Summer Knight is a firefighter/paramedic turned physician who has practiced emergency, urgent care, and family medicine; a managing director in the life sciences and health care consulting practice at Deloitte; and author of “Humanizing Healthcare: Hardwiring Humanity into the Future of Health” (McGraw Hill, April 2021).

  • Yeah. If we call them a different name they will lose weight and stop smoking. Who knew a shift in terminology could be so powerful.

  • I agree with viewing the patient/Doctor relationships as a partnership,working together for good of healing.sorry to say I had to end a relationship with my medical Doctor because she was to passive in only doing just the minimum of care. I would like for medical personnel that we are in this thing we call life to helper ,healer and most of all service those who need us as a team.

  • Changing the doctor-patient relationship can upset those patients who are comfortable with the old ways. 30 years ago I advised patients that my communication policy was they are entitled to know everything they wish to know and that I had a cassette recorder in my office so that I could recall the consultation and advice and give them a tape.
    Most were surprised.
    Many welcomed it.
    One patient responded that the only time he had his conversations recorded was at the police station.
    Anything that helps patients learn how to manage their illness is a good idea.

  • A laborious solution to a nonexistent problem. Surely, Dr. Knight has better things to do

  • As I see it, this issue is especially relevant and important for the field of psychiatry. Right now, people are told that they have some “disorder” based on a checklist, and are also assigned labels. This itself is so disempowering to patients. Doctors working together with people who come for assistance (i.e., addressing people’s psychosocial issues, or directing them to resources that can address these issues) can go a long way in mental healing.

  • Corporate hack. Client is the monetization of a relationship, it is devoid of care, compassion, or ethics. Barry Farkas perhaps said it best: “The term ‘provider’ for clinical caregivers, like the term ‘client’ for patients, depersonalizes and commodifies that which is neither and so very much more. The more we use these commercial terms to refer to intimate and personal care, the more that care becomes commercial and impersonal. Such is the power of language.”

  • Well said it is healing to my heart i wish the hospital and doctors listen it is all very, very sad it is all about greed not healing . I am a captain of my body you are right is the only one body we must take care of it .

  • “… consider people as “clients” rather than “patients,” a word I am doing my best to banish from my vocabulary.”

    How typical coming from a corporate guy. It would instead be in the public interest to banish the word “client” from the vocabulary, and the for-profit monster that goes with it. Not only in medicine.

  • Completely disagree – ‘client’ and ‘consumer’ sound starchy and transactional. This is medicine, not corporate. You also never really stated what the actual problem with the word ‘patient’ is – what is so ‘submissive’ and ‘dehumanizing’ about it? You can banish it from your own vocab, but good luck getting anyone else to do the same, because it’s actually totally fine.

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