You Are Not a Patient

Look, I dislike glib new-ageisms, and touchy feely cliches as much as the next person.

But this I know: As a physician and psychiatrist, I help people rediscover their own inner source of healing. I facilitate a person’s journey to wellness. My treatment is to help the brave, the courageous people who come to my clinic, rediscover their source of strength, their resilience, their reservoir of healing. My job is to help them remove the obstacles that prevent them from connecting with this source.

And so, as I do this work that I feel so privileged to be doing, I am searching for a word to replace “patient”, a word that I dislike; from the Latin “patiens” literally “to suffer”, the word “patient” connotes a person who is passive, who lies in wait for the physician to heal him or her, a word that seems to me a relic of the paternalistic medical model that is the very antithesis of my practice philosophy.

But what is the alternative?

Therapists and counselors often use the world “client” and although I use the word too for want of a better alternative, I find it almost as distasteful as “patient”. From the Latin for “follower” (or so the internet tells me, I might be wrong), the word “client” is more suited to professions far older than medicine. Or worse, it is reminiscent of the legal system.

The words “consumer” and “customer” have been tried by some physicians, but these are more appropriate to the world of business and the marketplace; no matter how bad the current system of medicine, I like to think that the majority of physicians are not motivated by money; our work is a vocation, and the guiding principles are empathy, compassion, and above all, the well-being and best interests of the person who is seeking treatment.

“Health-seeker” is another possibility, and I rather like the phrase, although it’s a bit cumbersome. Also, to me at least, “health seeker” seems to suggest that the seeking has not yet come to an end, that the person is still laboring, still searching, with no indication whether this search has yet to bear fruit.

So what is the answer?

I am not sure yet. But the word that replaces “patient” or “client” has to encompass the following:

1. If you seek treatment, you are not “dysfunctional” or “sick” or “diseased”. You are facing challenges in your life, emotional or physical and are seeking a solution to these challenges.

2. Your desire is to lead a better life, to realize your potential, to transcend obstacles. Just because you seek help does not suddenly make you any “sicker” than someone who has not sought the help of a professional. It might mean that you are smarter, braver, more courageous.

3. In helping facilitate your journey to wellness, I learn about bravery, about the strength of a human being when life is hard, I learn about hope, resilience, and faith.

I value you, and I respect you. And therefore, I seek another word to describe you, and my role in your journey to wellness.

June 20, 2011 | 9:23 am | By Dr Shyam Bhat
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