Why are patients called patients?

by Dr Anne Malatt, Ophthalmologist, MBBS, MS, FRANZCO, FRACS, Australia

Why are patients called patients?

Most practitioners call their customers clients, but doctors call theirs patients.

Why is that?

Is it because they spend so much time waiting patiently for care – that waiting to see a doctor or waiting for a hospital procedure is an exercise in learning to be patient?


The definition of ‘patient’ is:

  1. able to accept or tolerate delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious (the adjective)
  2. a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment (the noun)

The word comes from the Latin word ‘patient’, meaning ‘suffering’. (1)

Whereas a ‘client’ is defined as:

  1. a person or organisation using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company.
  2. a person being dealt with by social or medical services.

Interestingly, the word ‘client’ comes from the Latin ‘cluere’, meaning ‘hear or obey’. The term originally denoted a person under the protection and patronage of another. (2)


I am a doctor, and I have not been a patient person. The irony of this is not lost on me!

I do try and keep to time during my working day, but people have a habit of not fitting into boxes, including my 10-15 minute time slots, and I am often running up to half an hour late, and sometimes longer.

I provide a lovely waiting room, with comfortable chairs, relaxing music, current magazines, fun books to read, and pleasant attentive staff, but I still keep people waiting in the waiting room.

Every now and again I run on time, or even early, and almost always when this happens, my next patient is running late and I have to wait for them. And do you think I enjoy that?!


Recently my husband had minor surgery. I drove him to the hospital and waited patiently for him, for several hours. It was a lovely experience. I prepared myself for the day, bringing food and drink and something to do and, as I was expecting to wait, I had made no other plans for the rest of the day and had nowhere else I needed to be.

Because I allowed time and space for waiting, I did not find it a pressure, a burden, an imposition, and did not feel at all frustrated or cross. In fact, I even had a nap in a very comfy chair.

I also prepare in this way when I go to visit the doctor for myself. I expect to wait (we can rail against it, but we know it will happen) and I prepare accordingly. I do not schedule another appointment for at least two hours, and I bring food, drink and something to do while I am waiting. In fact, I take the opportunity to have time and space to be with me, and to catch up on things I have not had time to do. I look forward to and enjoy the opportunity and sometimes even just sit and wait, enjoying doing nothing, just being.

Perhaps the doctor’s waiting room would have a different feeling, if we realised why it was called that, and prepared for and enjoyed waiting there!


There is a way to be a patient, that minimises our suffering, and increases our ability to accept or tolerate delays, without becoming annoyed or anxious. That way includes preparing ourselves for the likely possibility of waiting, and developing understanding. The doctor is not in her room filing her fingernails, but seeing other patients just like us who are in need of care, sometimes with complex and difficult problems that take time to sort out, and she may have had to fit someone in who was in urgent need of care. The doctor is caring for a whole community of people, of which we are a part, and when our turn comes, she will devote the same level of care and attention to us.

I, for one, would much rather be a ‘patient’ than a ‘client’. I have never been one for ‘hearing and obeying’ (my parents and husband will testify to that!) and I don’t really want to be ‘dealt with by social or medical services’.

So I shall continue to be a patient, and to wait patiently for the great care my doctors and all the medical staff provide.

(1) http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/patient
(2) http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/client

901 thoughts on “Why are patients called patients?

  1. The word patience for me has always hinted at an underlying agitation, a feeling of unrest that is being covered up by the act of being patient. If there was no underlying agitation then there would be no need for patience.

  2. Anne I loved your preparation knowing you would be waiting, so supported yourself with food and drink, something to consider the next time I head to the surgery for a visit.

    I’m not the biggest fan in being kept waiting at the doctor’s surgery, and on many occasions, I have been kept waiting for two hours before I could see them. Usually because I have walked into the surgery reluctantly for not wanting to see them on the first place, and with an impatient attitude. That doesn’t help either. I’ve observed when I go prepared, I am attended to earlier!..

    I know I need to change my awareness and appreciation of this, and like you said, ‘the doctor is not in her room filing her fingernails’… I need to learn to be a patient, patient, after all the doctors are doing their best to provide a service and my attitude doesn’t help either.

    Thank you for bringing this to my awareness.

  3. Feeling how part of waiting patiently is being prepared to take responsibility for being there in the first place and not feeling a victim of circumstances. This completely changes the experience and we can approach any consultation in equality so that both parties are both working to resolve whatever the issue is.

  4. Maybe the question should be not to do with our patience but rather our impatience and why are we this way when as you share we can so easily change it just though a simple choice.

    1. Vicky, it is true that we can easily change by a simple choice we make and I have felt the difference when this has occurred. The doctor is different with you and you are different with yourself too, by simply choosing to surrender to what is occurring for all and in that moment, things flow differently.

  5. Being patient, for me, definitely has the association of surrender and for a long time I considered that to be ‘giving-up’. However, although it can be that I have come to relate to surrender as being connecting to, a ‘giving-in’, to my inner-knowing and thereby deepening my relationship to God and that is spacious joyous and loving.

    1. Interesting how ‘surrender’ is another word that has negative connotations for so many but is actually beautiful to experience as I have recently when going through a period of ill health and feeling the support that I have been surrounded by since becoming willing to surrender to all that the experience is offering me.

      1. When we surrender with the positive understanding it opens the door to far more than we can ever imagine and then we experience the magic of God.

      2. in recent years I have been practicing surrendering to illness, injury and pain and although I can still feel pockets and periods of resistance, I am so much better than I used to be. In fact there’s no comparison, I used to have to be totally wiped out by something to not buck and fight and push through. Now I actually find something quite beautiful in letting myself be physically unwell, weak or under the weather, I don’t see it in the negative way that I used to, I see it as a necessary process that my body needs to go through.

  6. Being patient is an invitation to surrender in the ‘much more’ that there is always within and around us

  7. It’s interesting that when I went to see my doctor some years ago and I was offered options for treatment and I wanted more tests he reminded me that I was the client. It was the first time I had heard a doctor refer to a patient as a client and I must admit it felt very equalising at the time.

  8. I love that patience comes from being more understanding, rather than discipline or dissociation, which sometimes felt like I had to employ.

  9. There is so much grace and wisdom in this article. The difference between affording myself the space to wait – be patient – or get caught up in time and my created pressures, is absolutely enormous and very much felt in my body.

  10. Our lack of patience in being a patient is very telling of our relationship with time, and potentially why we are sick in the first place – could it not be an inconvenience but a moment of grace and part of the overall “stop” of getting sick.

      1. For most people waiting is a contracted state, we wait but not in a surrendered body, we wait in a body that’s pinched in at best and agitated or anxious at worst and that isn’t healthy or harmonious. Often our contracted state is due to our adherence to time and the pressure that we feel associated with it. Even if we don’t have to be anywhere else we often feel the pressure of time simply because ‘we have so much to do, we can’t spend all day waiting!’. What I’ve found hugely beneficial is practicing keeping my body as relaxed as possible when I feel it going into any kind of stress or associated behaviours to do with time. In the mornings when I’m getting ready I turn the bathroom clock round so that I can’t keep flicking my eyes to it. What I have found is that time has stated to morph and I feel like I have so much more of it. Of course I don’t but the significant thing is my experience of time has changed so radically that I feel that I do.

  11. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in waiting rooms with my now deceased mother, and although she didn’t enjoy the waiting around and would get tired, she would generally put up with it in a quiet manner with the odd sign and huff and puff. I saw it as an opportunity to spend more time with her outside of the house and a way to get to meet other people, but unfortunately, not everyone had that approach and would complain so loudly that the staff could not but hear. It can’t be easy to be on the receiving end of disgruntled patients.

  12. I enjoy waiting patiently be it at a doctor’s or dentist’s surgery or a train station as it is an opportunity to observe those around you and very often an opportunity to connect and talk to someone you have not met previously.

    1. I agree – if we consider things an opportunity instead of an inconvenience – it opens up our day to be a great experience regardless of the circumstances.

  13. Isn’t it interesting how medical practitioners also require a lot of patience when dealing with patients who have been patiently waiting for a long time to be seen. It’s like the whole system is asking everyone to stop, and wait. Which I reckon gives space for all of us to consider the quality that we are interacting with each other in.

  14. Being patient is a beautiful thing because it means we are just waiting, with no expectation to be seen on time, and it also allows other patients and doctors to have space for those that most need it.

  15. It was really interesting to read that the definition of a client means to hear and obey as in many cases in allied health i have experienced clients being more engaged and proactive in their health care. In some cases the term patient seems to communicate a passivity of receiving care where your own engagement is not required. In the end perhaps it comes down to quality that we engage in when seeking healthcare.

  16. I can see how allowing ourselves to see the greater picture and consider our communities as a whole instead of focusing in on just us when we are waiting for medical care can go a long way towards dropping any emotional reactions and taking it personally when we are waiting for a long time to see a doctor.

  17. It’s interesting the definition of client to mean to hear and obey. Where I live, it is the exact opposite. A client instructs and the person offering service is the one obeying. In truth, what is obeyed is the money (the paying party), how distorted and exposing.

  18. Every moment is there constellated for us, may that be that it flows and we don´t have to wait or that we have to wait longer than expected. Us becoming frustrated about it will not allow to embrace what is there to learn for us. Knowing that we are located any time, without having a picture how we want things to be.

  19. The relationship between doctor, clinician or practitioner and patient should be absolutely equal, brought together by a mutual purpose that offers a lot of opportunity for learning and development.

    1. The more we live in brotherhood with each other, we will be open to understand why things are happening how they are happening and having a grander understanding of why things might take longer at a doctor e.g. than normal. What would “normal” actually be in a society where people look after each other and care for another?!

  20. My last visit to the hospital was a real joy. I had taken a book with me but I hardly had a chance to look at it. I soon was talking to the lady next to me who was a teacher at a primary school and it was great to learn about how things work at her school and the changes she is noticing with the children and parents. There were also two very small children waiting with their mum who were very keen to show me their toys and engage me in their play. I also had a great conversation with the mum whose children had recently developed allergies.

    1. Isn´t it amazing when we connect with people that are around us, whilst we are waiting, instead of withdrawing into distractions like phone, books, emotions…Actually waiting gets a whole different meaning then, as what if the waiting time, was exactly the healing we needed at that time. So there is no switching off to get to a point x – every moment is a point of healing or evolution in our day.

  21. I was at a doctor’s just a few days ago and I had expected to and did wait for a long time, and what was interesting was while I was waiting I could feel all kinds of thoughts floating around, with provocation to be bored, impatient, annoyed, anxious… and it was really palpable how it would be so easy for us to be taken over by any one of them and morph ourselves to fit into a type of posture and behaviour to enact that if we leave ourselves disconnected and empty.

    1. I would suggest that we have to be disconnected and empty in the first place for thoughts of boredom, impatience, annoyance and anxiousness to come up in the first place, because when we’re connected there’s no room for them to enter.

  22. Perhaps patients are called ‘patients’ because there is no quick fix or magic pill we can take to heal the separation of our spirit from Soul, but more so a whole hearted commitment to a life lived with steady consistency, with every detail continually adjusted to support this unfolding back to our true self. If we skip bits, we simply do not move.

  23. Whenever I feel impatience creep in I know I have moved away from my connection to my essence, as whenever with this connection to Soul we already are precisely where we need to be.

  24. In life there is a lot of delay. To allow myself to feel how delay makes me feel and to express it, without needing to change anything, has deepened my acceptance of reality and no longer do I choose to be affected by it.

  25. It seems to me that over the last few years I have had to be a lot more patient when waiting to see the doctor, so now I too go prepared. I used to find myself getting quite frustrated, especially if I hadn’t allowed enough time, so by the time I saw the doctor I was feeling worse than when I sat down in the waiting room. These days I understand that doctors are always dealing with the unexpected and the last thing they would want to do is to push their patient out the door just to keep on time. So I sit and wait, patiently, simply enjoying the stop moment in time I am being offered.

    1. Some of the GP’s I have known brought such detail in their care that they always ran late. All the patients knew in the waiting room that the person ahead of us is getting great medical care, and we never minded waiting because of the quality of care being offered not just to ourselves but to all the patients.

  26. We remember a missed bus much more readily than a bus that arrived on time. Could it be the same here – you remember those times where you were on time only when the patient was late? Were there no other times and could those other times have been more or less common than the doctor being on time and the patient late?

  27. Waiting for another to offer us healing does indeed offer us the opportunity to reflect and take responsibility for what may have brought us to this point.

  28. I have started to truly appreciate being patient either at the doctors or the specialists, because it means I have made a commitment to myself to support whatever is there to further expose my choices.

  29. I’d like to bring this across to traveling from a-b, When traveling I am always prepared that there will be delays and to relax and go with the flow be patient as I’m not going to get there any faster by becoming anxious or frustrated.

  30. “Perhaps the doctor’s waiting room would have a different feeling, if we realised why it was called that, and prepared for and enjoyed waiting there!” I am involved in a project at my doctors surgery that hangs the patients art on the walls – it has really transformed the surgery and has given the patients something to look and reflect on.

  31. There is much to learn from being a patient. Understanding that medical assessments, diagnostics and consultations all take time. Then there is all the things that happen ‘behind the scenes’; how tests and appointments and follow ups are organised. I work in a nursing consulting role and even a phone call can result in half a days work. Patience therefore is something for all of us to learn across the board. I often have to wait for medical professionals to return my calls and messages. Things take time. At the foundation of my own understanding is that everyone working in health care is there because they want to help people and make a difference to their lives. Knowing this helps me not take personally delays that can and do happen in healthcare, often because someone else healthcare needs are taking priority. In fact I am pleased to know that the sicker someone is the higher their care is prioritised.

  32. Developing patience and understanding has changed my whole relationship with waiting… often it is now an amazing opportunity to be quiet and still with me, or to meet and connect with others.

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