As a health care copywriter words are my business—especially those that have to do with describing the relationship between people and the care they receive. To me, words reflect our reality and our values. They are part of who we are as individuals. And they’re certainly part of the “who you are” as a health care brand.

That being said, one word that has always been hard for me to use in copy is patient. I continually find myself wanting to change my copy to read person or individual. To me the word patient is impersonal. It seems detached and unemotional.

The meaning of the word Patient

Patient comes from the Latin patiens or patior, which means to suffer or to bear. It means a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment. No wonder I have a hard time using it in copy. 

Outdated and paternalistic

I recently read an intriguing article from the New England Journal of Medicine’s online Catalyst. The authors discuss the word patient and hypothesize that although the health care conversation has shifted over the past decade, the paternalism inherent in health care has not.

I agree that patient is a holdover from a paternalistic era when people put their health in their physician’s hands without questions, when the doctor was the authority—end of discussion. There was little public knowledge about diagnoses and treatments a few decades ago. There was no WebMD  to consult. Many people didn’t discuss their health concerns with anyone outside their family and prevention wasn’t part of the health care equation.

I also agree that some health care providers are still stuck in that “it’s for your own good” paternalistic way of thinking and practicing.

Health care is morphing

But, I think health care is morphing beyond just a conversation. While some people are passive recipients of care, most people are not. Prevention has become paramount. Health concerns are discussed with friends, family and online. Health care sites are consulted and educational materials are read.

People are no longer suffering and bearing something done to them. They are making their needs known and asking questions. And most people are looking for a partner or a coach relationship with their health care provider.

Some research to back it up

The patient choice research we’ve done here at Hailey Sault backs up the type of relationship people are looking for now. Of the 1,233 people we interviewed for our study, 40 percent said they wanted their health care provider to help them be healthier every day.

If not patients, what do we call them?

So, if patient no longer describes the person seeking care—or the relationship between the doctor and that person—what does? Some words I’ve heard debated in the past are consumer, client or user.

Ugh. I don’t know about you, but these words don’t scream warmth or relationship to me. They don’t even come close to the compassion and trust that is at the core of a good health care relationship. What they do scream is economic transaction.

Yes, health care does cost money (lots of money), but do you as a health care brand want the people who come to you for care to be described in an economic term?

What is needed is a word or words that are more emotional and relationship based—words that describe the people nurses worry about, those that doctors discuss with colleagues, the people that care-providers advocate for and agonize about.

Could it be as simple as individual, person or human?

I don’t know. All I know is that when I am writing about the people you care for as a health care brand I want it to reflect the kind of care you provide and the regard you have for those in your care. To me that means referring to them as individuals, people, children, women and men.

You provide person-centered care. Hopefully it’s the kind of care that seeks to respect the unique cultural, economic and social needs of each individual. It’s powerful stuff and the word patient doesn’t cut it anymore.

Is there a perfect replacement word for patient? One that works in all instances? Maybe not. But I’m going to keep searching.