ROCHESTER, MINN. — Health care is changing, seemingly on a daily basis, and so is the patient's role. In the past, that individual may have been expected to behave more complacently, uninvolved and passively waiting for the doctor's orders. That's all changing. Maybe it's time we throw out what we call them and come up with something new.
A panel of experts chewed over that topic Tuesday afternoon, during the final day of the Mayo Clinic's Transform Symposium 2013. The forum was slated to focus on consumerism and empowering patients to take more ownership of their care, but audience members kept veering the conversation back toward that pesky placeholder.
Carrie Nelson, M.D., the medical director for outpatient care management with Advocate Physician Partners, points out that we're constantly shedding words that don't fit anymore, such as "retarded."
"Whenever we start to change something dramatically and change our mental model of it, we may need a new word for it," she says. "And I think that's what we're struggling with. Patient has a definition that now feels archaic."
The different definitions of the noun, by the way, according to Webster, include phrases such as "one that is acted upon," "an individual awaiting or under medical care," and "the recipient of any or various personal services." The adjective form is even more telling, labeling a patient person as someone "bearing pains or trials calmly and without complaint."
But what's the better alternative? During another presentation at the conference, a Target executive threw out the word "guest" a lot to label the people who visit its stores, pharmacies and retail clinics. Consumer is something that's been bandied about a lot, and nowadays, the patient is looking more and more like one, as she shops for insurance plans or doctors online, compares prices for a knee-replacement surgery, and slams a disengaged doc on the Web the same way she might pan a bad restaurant.
In the audience, Meredith DeZutter, who works for the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, said she battles chronic migraines. Her caregivers trust her to follow her treatment plan, and she sees herself more as an active "partner" than a passive "patient." Consumer doesn't quite ring true.
"When I heard the word consumer, I don't associate that with trust. At best, the people who provide services to me that I pay for, I might have brand loyalty to, but I can't think of one that I have trust in," she says. "I heard a word up on stage that completely resonated with me, and that was partner. If my institution or provider and everybody else started calling me a partner, I would feel really empowered."
Also from the audience, Gary Slutkin, M.D. — who is the founder and executive director of Cure Violence, and gave a thought-provoking presentation earlier in the conference about treating violence as a disease — says he has also struggled with the term. He and his colleagues polled their subjects and came up with a different word, after they expressed disdain for the word "client."
"We asked them and they came up with the word participant," he says. "I'm not completely satisfied with it myself, but they seemed to like it a lot. It seems cumbersome."
What do you think? Is the term patient outdated and ready for the trash heap? Or are we just overthinking things? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.