What are those little bugs with the glowing bootys? Lightning bugs or fireflies? How about that thing your grandparents like to do on the weekends where they buy random things they definitely don’t need? Is that a garage sale or a yard sale? Or what do you put on your feet when going out for a run? Tennis shoes or sneakers (or trainers if you’re from “Across the Pond”)? Up north they call it pop, some places call it soda, and us Texans call it coke (but not all cokes are Coke, of course). We all use different lingo, but at the end of the day we’re talking about the same thing. It’s all about communication!
Psychology is a communication-based profession. Every aspect of the clinical relationship depends on clear communication for efficacy of treatment. Clarity is so essential because it can change how someone perceives themselves, their doctor, their condition, and even their view on reality. This is why distinguishing between patient and client is so important and commonly debated. How a person feels about themself and their relationship with their therapist will alter the rate and even scope of their healing.
A patient, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “an individual awaiting or under medical care and treatment,” or “the recipient of any of personal services.” The word comes from the Latin root meaning “to suffer or bear,” implying passivity on the part of the person as they bear whatever suffering is necessary and tolerating the interventions of the outside expert. Some folks take issue with “patient” because it implies the person receiving care feels incapable of maintaining agency.
On the other hand, a client is defined as “one that is under the protection of another, a dependent; or a person who engages the professional advice or services of another, a customer.” While this definition implies that the person is more active in seeking care and healing, some folks feel “client” is too passive as it depends on the professional providing services to them. “Client” also has heavy connotations of business or financial interaction, which seemingly strips away the human, face-to-face relationship.
At Simply Psych we use “patient” (we were started by a physician after all!). Neither word is perfect in its definition for referring to a person actively seeking to find wholeness in mental and emotional health. Both words could actually be used interchangeably depending on the situation, the dynamic of the relationship, and the individual person receiving care. Taking the time to just ask the person you are providing care to is a sure fire way to provide clarity and intentionality to your practice.
The American Psychological Association took a stand a couple of years ago, claiming “patient” is the term they resolve to use. At the end of the day, patient and client really could be as interchangeable as soda or coke (because really, who calls it pop?!). It is important to note here that the person receiving professional medical care is an expert in themselves. Maybe we shouldn’t even use the terms patient or client, but instead “self-expert.” 🙂
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