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

903 thoughts on “Why are patients called patients?

  1. While we are waiting patiently to be seen by the doctor it offers us an opportunity to reflect on how the choices we have been making may be part of the underlying cause for why we are there.

  2. I enjoy this perspective immensely and for most of my life I have waited patiently for doctors understanding their schedule and their care for many people. But recently I questioned why doctors cannot communicate to patients if they too are running late and where patients can crowd up a hospital waiting room with no chairs to sit and without notice how long on end they have to wait, and why can doctors rush patients when they see them after their patient wait for them. There is no right or wrong but the communication needs to be opened for more understanding between doctor and patient.

  3. It is interesting to reflect on why we get impatient. What is it that we cannot wait for, particularly if we are waiting to see a doctor/medic who is going to potentially assist us to improve whatever health problem we have gone to see them with. If we have to wait, are we impatient to get back home so that we can just chill out in front of the TV or something similar? It may be worth considering that it just might be the way we have been living is what has taken us to see the doctor in the first place, and so ‘the wait’ could be a great opportunity to reflect on that, and what changes we could make to prevent that particular health condition from happening again.

  4. As patients we have a responsibility to be patient, in order to assist the doctors, who then give us the best care they are able to give us, the more impatient we are the more stress the doctors feel under, and that’s often when mistakes are made.

  5. Waiting to see your doctor can be a great time to check in with yourself, or even strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know.

  6. Waiting patiently to be seen by a consultant or a GP, definitely takes patience on most occasions, with the NHS bursting at the seams to accommodate and cope with the ever increasing need of medical assistance to the growing number of ailments that are being presented.

  7. Anne, this is a really important blog to write, I can feel with myself and others how there can be much annoyance and critiscm in doctors waiting rooms and little understanding, what you are sharing is very beautiful, if we are prepared and had understanding then there need not be frustration, we can actually enjoy the waiting.

  8. The activity of patience is an opportunity for surrender… Surrender enables one to be open, honest, humble, accept and to receive care…. It is quite a useful attitude to have when going in for a medical consultation and facilitates a positive relationship between both practitioner and patient. .

  9. This is a very light-hearted and insightful reflection on the patient-doctor relationship from both sides of the fence. I used to be a terrible ‘waiter’, tense and twitchy as I watched the time; I now really enjoy waiting, often embracing the opportunity to hang out quietly with me or spot the opportunities in the space to talk to someone also waiting, read, prepare for what next, be still in the whirring world…

  10. I love how you have unpacked the definition of the true meaning of the word patient here, and how relevant the word is in this context. I have always been a fairly ‘patient’ person, which has been commented on by others many times, as I feel there is so much opportunity for self reflection or interaction with others in any situation where we have to ‘be patient’. Simply being with ourselves and learning to enjoy that is a great one for starters.

  11. Being a patient is an exercise in acceptance and non-attachment. Given that healthcare is full of imperfect but amazing people, there are many things to learn as both patient and health practitioner. There is certainly never a dull day.

  12. I love the word ‘patience’ for it denotes a sense of space through which great healing can occur if one simply surrenders to what is on offer and does not rush in and try to control the situation at hand. After all, is this not the key to our healing?

  13. I didn’t know the root meaning of ‘patient’ is suffering. That is quite a surprise – I don’t consider waiting to be suffering.

  14. Having stop moments like waiting to be seen by a doctor, can be a good reflection point as to how are we feeling within this stop moment. Are we agitated and thinking about what we could be doing or are we taking the opportunity to feel into our bodies and enjoy the time. If we choose to do the latter, how we are when we see the Doctor is more supportive for all.

  15. This is very interesting. Obviously I didn’t know where the words patient and client came from and what they originally meant, but I much preferred to be called a client than a patient. The ‘patient’ for me felt like I was suffering and had to be cured and I was at the mercy of a doctor, while the ‘client’ sounded as though I was making a choice to come to see a practitioner and I held just as much power, if not more, because I was paying.

  16. Love this playful look at our relationship with waiting. I reckon a lot of the issue people have with waiting is that they believe it is a waste of time. If we change our perspective on it and see it as a lovely opportunity to take a stop and a break in our otherwise non-stop busy days, then it is far from wasted time but in fact might be the best time spent in the whole day!

  17. When we surrender to the way life is, we are supported to deal with whatever comes our way. Perhaps all this waiting you mention Anne is to teach us just that. If we’re open we can have a healing before the consultation even begins.

  18. Being ‘patient’ isn’t just an important skill but a practice in obedience; can we allow things to unfold as they have been divinely designed to, as and when the true moment occurs?

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