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:
- able to accept or tolerate delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious (the adjective)
- 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:
- a person or organisation using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company.
- 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.