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

939 thoughts on “Why are patients called patients?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. I have found that the more prepared I am beforehand with any appointment and in staying present with myself it allows me to surrender my body to what is needed so that if the waiting takes a little longer than planned it does not affect the flow and harmony of the space I have created for myself.

  4. 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.

  5. Anne, I love your look at the definitions of what a patient is and that of a client. It raises a good point that there does needs to be the one calling forth the service needed for all.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. A point well made Anne. The waiting room, a space to spend time with ourselves and enjoy being who we are.

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. Choosing to stay connected with myself whilst waiting – for anything – feels so different from times past when I would feel agitation at being kept waiting.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. “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.

  22. 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.

  23. I have often found my level of patience being challenged as I have waited for longer times in a Doctor’s surgery, but perhaps it would be wise of me to use the time to consider why I am there and the caring nature of Doctors sometimes means we need to wait a little longer than usual, for one day that may just be me that needs more time and support. Thank you Anne for patiently reminding me of this.

  24. If we get locked into thinking about what just seems inconvenient to us then understanding goes out the window, but if we open up to appreciating all the reasons why our doctor may be running late and the workload they are under we can be much more reasonable about waiting!

  25. How different the doctors waiting room would be if everyone were to understand and live this. To take responsibility for oneself by being prepared makes so much sense, and helps us to avoid the frustration we would otherwise feel. There is an acceptance required of the way things are, and an understanding needed that we can’t change it. We are then free to be still and calm in what is potentially a challenging situation.

  26. 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?

    1. That is a great point. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to give something time to develop.

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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

  32. 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?

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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…

  36. 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. .

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

    1. Yes Mary this is true, and this way we can bring so much more to our interaction with the doctor as we take responsibility for our part in our illness or dis-ease.

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