I have heard the debate go on about what to label consumers of eye care. Doctors and even opticians can get down-right petulant when discussing the topic. Often, the argument is made that the word customer should be stricken from the optical practitioner’s vocabulary because it implies a profit motive whereas the word patient implies a nobler more caring motive. Some of this touchiness may stem from the desire of many optometrists and opticians to take on a larger health care role, however I believe the argument is as pertinent, if not more so, to general health care, as it is to eye care.

As usual, I have a different take on the subject. I believe both health care practitioners and consumers of health care would do well to strike the word patient from their vocabulary. I would even go as far to say that use of the word patient and more importantly, the patient mindset, lies at the root of what is wrong with health care in the U.S.

While the term patient may have a noble connotation for health care professionals, it has far greater implications than mere provider intent; it assigns positions of power and control. The word patient is derived from the Latin pati which means to suffer. Merriam-Webster defines patient as 1b: the recipient of any of various personal services or 2: one that is acted upon. In essence, patient refers to a sufferer acted upon by a practitioner. Our use of the word places the practitioner in the position of control and establishes a mindset of dependency on behalf of the patient. On the surface this might not seem problematic. The practitioner is after all a caregiver, someone who is supposed to treat his patients with the same care he would give his own mother. Problems arise however when the practitioner is not that caregiver; the practitioner views the patient as someone who needs him rather than the reverse; or the patient submits to the care of a practitioner and abdicates himself of further responsibility.

Customer on the other hand is an empowering word. Customers look out for themselves while patients need to be taken care of. Customers have the power to choose where and how to spend their money while patients are told where to go for care. Health care consumers could have a significant impact on the heath care industry, if they only wielded the power of the customer and armed themselves with knowledge and knowledgeable advocates. I personally know several individuals who have benefited from and perhaps even saved their own lives by educating themselves and taking an active role in deciding the course and type of care they received rather than relegating themselves to the role of the patient. I know this to be true in optical as well, since not all optical professionals take the time to educate their patients about all their options. I understand this might not sit well with some who prefer to think of their customers as patients; those that would rather dictate to their patients than listen to their customers. But the simple fact remains there exists a sizeable profit motive for most practitioners (which is not always a bad thing). Therefore, it could be of enormous benefit to practitioners, their practices, and their patients, if they would think of their clientele as customers and employ the tenets of good customer service rather than use lexicon to maintain authority.

Holding on to the argument that using the word patient is somehow nobler because it does not imply a profit motive is quaint; reminiscent of a bygone era, but in today’s world is almost trite. How many people do you know believe health care practitioners are not motivated by profit on some level? For that matter, how many practitioners do you know that are not motivated by profit on some level? Keep in mind profit motive is not inherently evil. If profit motive leads to better care and more respect for your customers, and those customers return or even tell their friends as a result, everyone wins. I think insistence upon use of the word patient can consciously or subconcsiously be more righteous than noble. Moreover, the patient mindset whereby consumers give up responsibility for their own care is detrimental not only to themselves but to the industry as a whole.

Update:

Interestingly, I came across some comments from Paul King of Opticourier who passionately argues the opposing point of view from an optician's perspective, even stating:  

I feel that "customer" should be stricken from our optical vocabulary. I would like to start a grassroots push to change this mindset in the industry...

Paul King's comments (last two paragraphs on the page)

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