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

880 thoughts on “Why are patients called patients?

  1. Having a willingness to bring understanding to any situation allows us to surrender to what is and not try to control life. Being patient allows us to connect to something greater that we otherwise would dismiss or not have time for.

  2. It’s always the way. Once I was late for a doctor’s appointment and they were on time, go figure. Every move we make has massive effects in the micro cosmic sense and the macrocosmic sense, when we are going for a trip to the doctors, I feel there is so much more at play than simply “getting there on time” for everyone involved in the whole process, even if they aren’t physically near, are involved in the coordination.

    1. Quite simply because we are designed to move as One and in this Oneness no move can be made that does not affect every part that makes us One.

  3. It’s not as though I prepare myself for something to go wrong but when I do allow myself plenty of time and am prepared to go to the doctors, dentist, opticians etc I feel at ease in my body. I cannot underestimate the importance of preparing ahead and how this has an impact on my body and others throughout the day.

    1. I absolutely agree Caroline, as a working mum with 3 children it must be said that preparing ahead feeds us back – surrounds us with a confirmation of our true value and worth.

  4. I love how you prepared and were so ready to be patient while awaiting your husband’s surgery recently. It sounds so delicious that you enjoyed the time, instead of railing against it.
    I am so inspired that you didn’t fight it, you allowed it to nurture you deeply. Now I can’t wait, to have a chance to wait like you did, thanks for the inspiration.

  5. I too would rather be a patient than a client. The message I take from your blog Anne is to be prepared to be a patient and to use the time to spend time with me, lovingly and tenderly. How gorgeous, rather than the anxiousness, irritability and impatience.

  6. I loved the play on words Anne but more than that I loved the introduction of every moment being an opportunity to truly appreciate the space to love, nurture and be present with ourselves. ‘Choice’ is a gift we have available to us in every moment – do we make the most of it?

  7. It felt to me reading this blog that being patient in itself was healing. Knowing that being with myself, something no one else can make me wait for, is greater than any appointment this world can offer me.

  8. Now that I can choose to be myself and knowing just how lovely this feels, those moments of being patient as a patient, patiently waiting are now wonderful opportunities to enjoy me being me.

  9. When we know we are likely to have to wait we can take things to support us in this time, and allow space behind the appointment, ‘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.’

  10. So true that when we prepare ourselves and change our expectations, removing the pressure of time and instead just allowing the space, the whole experience – whatever it is – is so much more enjoyable. When we try to cram everything in, and rush from one thing to the next, without quality or presence, then the body feels squashed and rushed, and we feel stressed. Bringing quality back into our movements, and staying alert and present with the body, starts to turn this around.

  11. Love it Anne. By choosing to be bound by the perpetual drum of constant motion, we as humans have lost the art of simply being patient and enjoying the pause on offer. There is much grace in this pause and if we then learn to move with this stillness, all that we do gets imbued with this quality.

  12. The work of the medical profession is awesome, a true dedication to humanity, but that doesn’t mean it comes without its flaws.

  13. “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!” Great to re-read this blog – having been in a waiting room yesterday. I had the opportunity to re-imprint the relationship between myself and a doctor I saw two years ago, when I addressed the lack of meeting of me as a patient. Yesterday was very different experience – we have both changed.

  14. Medical treatment can be a completely different experience from one person to another. If we enter with a knowing that we are undergoing healing – then it will be supportive, but if we don’t wish to understand what our choices have been then it could be a complex and painful experience.

  15. Since I first read your delightful blog I have attended medical appointments with such a different attitude, and how different I feel while I am waiting; in fact I actually enjoy the waiting simply because I have prepared for any eventuality. So thank you for the inspiration to become a patient, patient; it has been a most practical and stress reducing inspiration.

  16. ha ha really enjoyed reading this and so true. I don’t mind waiting but do mind being assaulted by the televisions, radio and so called entertainment that we generally find in most waiting rooms and airports these days. It is the same on the telephone with the awful on hold endless sales messages – if they were not blaring out I could keep working whilst on hold. It would be great if we would have more quiet and supportive waiting rooms for those who do not require this form of constant stimulation aka torture!

    1. Ha! Unfortunately this is so true – the majority of our waiting rooms are not quiet areas set up for rest and repose but more so torture chambers that bludgeon our senses and keep us comfortably numb so we do not have to feel all that is otherwise there to feel, when simply being with ourselves.

      1. I went to the dentist on Friday and there was a TV in the waiting room and a radio on in the dental surgery. I couldn’t actually hear what the dentist was saying to me so had to ask him to turn it off. I found the radio much more disturbing than the drill!!!

      2. You just have to walk down a high street to see the ridiculous enticing advertisement that is pushed and peddled. Most of it is not even real, faces, bodies, meals – all created/modified on a computer…

  17. What a great blog to write with the current levels of waiting hours in medical centres around the world. It is not uncommon to wait up to 3 hours for an appointment in the winter months with the escalating rates of cold and flu’s. I have noticed that taking the time to connect with others in the waiting room and listening to others offers us a pause moment and a reflection of just appreciating being ourselves.

  18. Having read this blog before it has really inspired me to allow much more time and space for things and prepare for events supportively and this has made so much difference to life in a very beneficial spacious and loving way and really has helped my anxiousness and brought joy in simply being, stopping and appreciating life and everyone I meet.

  19. Love this perspective and I’d never considered that expression before. I could certainly benefit from being a patient more!

  20. I’ve been an impatient patient before but more often I enjoy those few minutes to check back in with me. Rather than a waiting room, maybe it’s a patience room.

  21. it is the anticipation as you say Anne that can be so destructive… When we approach things in a redefined way our experience can be totally different… And all it takes to just surrender just a little bit and let go of a little bit of control.

  22. My visits to my GP would mean that there would be a wait of 45 minutes on some days and it became a running joke between him and myself, but it was easy to see that the system we have set up does not fit in with us all having different illnesses and some of us need more time to get everything across, mostly to alleviate our fears, and what I could observe whilst waiting was that he was aware of the ten minute rule but would often go over to serve the patient fully and listen to what they had to say.

  23. My patience with being a patient has certainly vastly improved and what has just come to me is that in the past it was often my fear and anxiety about how any consultation would play out that led to my impatience. I just wanted to get it over with but would then often feel very dissatisfied and that I had not been heard. Nowadays I focus on sitting quietly and being with myself so that I feel prepared when I enter the consultation room to contribute what is needed to come to a satisfactory outcome.

  24. This is such a god point Anne. Developing an understanding of why we need to wait is part of taking responsibility and not reacting to life. We can take care of ourselves while we are waiting for the doctors care.

  25. Ha Ha Anne, I love how your first definition of a patient is because they have to be patient as they wait in the waiting room! And great to feel the difference between a patient and a client…

  26. Great reminder that as patients, we have a great opportunity to be patient; I am sure that this equanimity assists the body to better deal with what is ahead and offers an opportunity to relax and connect to ourselves.

  27. The medical profession bring a great deal of support to us, and occasionally someone needs extra time to be seen in order to support them, and one day that maybe us who needs that extra time and support, so having to wait a little longer is in fact also supporting those who need it.

  28. Having worked in healthcare I can attest to the fact that patients have to be very patient. They are often told “we will be there in a minute’, which unfortunately can turn into many more minutes. You have to wait for the shower, wait to be called for surgery, wait for visitors to arrive etc. The attitude of expecting to wait, having understanding that there are a lot of factors at play and being prepared for that feels like a great way to deal with it. I would also add however that being patient doesn’t mean giving your power away or passively waiting for everything to come to you.

  29. Part of the reason we are so impatient is because we live life in perpetual motion and are so caught up in the ‘do-do-doing’ that when presented with the opportunity to pause and draw breath, we short circuit because we are left to feel the tension we are in by keeping our vehicle (our body) constantly running! This explains a lot of road rage incidents and the level of frustration many of us feel when ‘stuck behind’ a slow driver – we do not like our giddying momentum brought to our attention. Anne, I love how you have turned this around and used the space on offer in this situation to be filled with something far more valuable than just bucket loads of more tension and more frustration.

  30. When we walk into the surgery’s waiting room all we think about is not having to wait long and getting seen to. Do we ever sit down knowing that the doctor will see us in due course, when it is our turn once (s)he has finished with the other patients, because let’s face it we are no more important than those who have gone in before us? Being more aware of the community as a whole certainly is supporting me to let go of my selfish ways.

  31. Anne, you make a great point in this article, I can feel how we have a choice to be patient and actually enjoy the experience of being with ourselves and having time to do nothing, or we can get frustrated and cross at having to wait. As you say it is almost inevitable that we will have to wait at doctors and so nowadays I prepare for this and enjoy the experience, often chatting with others in the waiting room or reading something I don’t normally get the chance to.

  32. I see patients in hospital on a weekly basis and I am always noticing what a difference the patient’s attitude makes to themselves and to all those around them. Many are smiling and welcoming despite their hugely restricting physical symptoms and these create a micro-climate of sunshine around themselves, whereas others meet me from a deeply given up place where their misery is all too obvious and they want to draw others into this dark place. Oblivious to the effects that their way of being is having on all around them.

  33. “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.” This brings a beautiful understanding to the fact that we have to wait and why. It is often when we don’t take the time and space to understand that we get inpatient and frustrated.

  34. A true patient knows that they are given more than enough space in which to contemplate the reason they are in the clinic in the first place. By this I mean that no time is wasted if we put it to use and reflect upon what has led us to the situation we find ourselves in and thus be adequately prepared for the next leg of our journey. It is this great learning on offer, gifted via our own awareness, that many of us turn away from when we make the choice to blame to doctor, dentist etc. for ‘running late’. We simply do not want the expansion that is on offer through the space (extra time) we find ourselves in.

  35. In understanding that in every given moment we are offered the opportunity to evolve, to bring more of who we are to the life we are living, we would simply surrender to being open to receiving what there is to explore, reflect on, and connect to in that moment. As such being patient would reflect the degree in which we understand the purpose or quality of energy behind every situation, determining how we then choose to respond.

  36. Understanding and accepting that we will have to wait and preparing for such makes the whole situation of the reasons why we have to see the doctor much less stressful.
    On another note it made me wonder if aspects such as social media/the internet etc play a part in this instant gratification mentality of not waiting but wanting everything now without the work put in. And what else contributes to this impatience.

  37. I agree Anne, I have five children and needless to say I have spent a lot of time in the doctor’s waiting room. I remember one school holidays I took them all in and we were there for three hours. The people around were amazed that none of them were on a phone or device and that none of them complained. I had food and blankets and toys, we set up camp and they drew and played, it was really quite beautiful. When we finished the ladies at the desk who were tired and had a busy day themselves, took the time to remark at how incredible these children were and the fact that all of them had turns of going in and out seamlessly. I was not in the waiting room the whole time and they were still very settled and I left feeling I had something to be celebrated, I did not feel frustrated or upset, it was a wonderful experience.

  38. So much can happen in those moments when we are being patient and waiting for something to occur or come about, just by simply choosing to be present with ourselves and being prepared is a huge support so that we don’t go into frustration or angst unnecessarily.

  39. A great reminder that our understanding and perception of needing to wait for medical assistance can make all the difference in our ability to not react to what is sometimes unavoidable. Our reactions only serve to distress ourselves unnecessarily and others we choose to impose our frustrations on, however to prepare ourselves lovingly like you do is a beautiful way to address needing to wait and enjoying the time and space as an opportunity to be with ourselves.

  40. Anne, this is really helpful to read from a doctor’s perspective about waiting in the waiting room, reading this brings a lot of understanding; ‘The doctor is not in her room filing her fingernails, but seeing other patients just like us who are in need of care,’ This makes so much sense and it feels really important for us as ‘patients’ to care for and understand our community and that someone’s needs may be greater than ours at that moment and that we will be seen and cared for, we may just need to wait a little while. I can feel how our society is so fast paced and that we have got used to things being quick and on tap that we are not used to waiting, being a patient in a doctor’s waiting room can be an oppurtunity to just sit and be.

  41. This is brilliant – the truth is, we are all ‘patients’. We can stamp our feet to this, get irritated and frustrated, but in the day of most there will be at least a few moments where we are asked to wait and be patient – the doctor’s waiting room, the traffic lights, the traffic jam, the train arriving a few minutes (or more) after scheduled time. Funny how all these opportunities are presented for us to be patient, and to have time with ourselves.

  42. Its great to have a true understanding of the difference between a ‘patient’ and a ‘client’. From this description I definitely opt to be a ‘patient’ too!

  43. When I go to see a doctor I accept that I may have to wait, but in that I am also aware that the doctor is seeing other patients who are also ill and in need of medical treatment – all of whom are just as important as me.

  44. I would love to see this article framed in every doctors surgery, what a great reminder to feel the bigger picture and not get lost in our own issue.

  45. We can fight it or we can surrender to it. And the ‘it’ can be anything in our lives. I find when we surrender to what ever is going on, and accept what is going on, the next steps are so much clearer.

  46. It is interesting when we accept and allow the space that is needed for our care that a much more loving presence and healing is offered well as much less frustration!

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