Patients, clients and consumers

In recent years, it’s becoming common to substitute the terms client or even consumer in the place of patient. The reason may be that the names client and consumer imply a more active role, in contrast with the passive role assigned to the term patient. However, the three concepts must be clearly differentiated, as they are not interchangeable.

Patient comes from the latin padecere, which when applied to disease results in illness, which is more in line with the role implied. The person with an illness not only seeks cure but also to be healed, as manifested in a personal and non-transferable story of one’s illness, which is how the disease is lived. This cure and healing is attained within a relationship of help and care. Both involved self-transcend in this relationship.

In contrast, the client has a disease (or other health condition), seeks a service from a provider, usually within an organisational setting, where the emphasis is on the biomedical aspects and the goal is to cure (or prevent or palliate). The relationship does not require or imply self-transcendence of those involved.

Lastly, the consumer seeks or wishes a product directly from a supplier, not necessarily based on need, generally induced by cultural, social or economic values. The relationship in this case is not of help, care or service, but of exchange.

It’s important to distinguish between these three concepts. The terms patient and client do not undermine the value of those involved, as does the name consumer. Besides, free market laws based on supposedly well-informed consumers work poorly in health care: the care, the service and the products cannot be provided or bought as in other areas of the economy, with good or better results. History has repeatedly shown that this is so.

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