Healthcare leaders: We'll all benefit if we reconcile the terms 'patient' and 'consumer'

In recent years, I've found myself involved in conversations at my health system and with my chief experience officer colleagues around the country about the nomenclature for the people we serve. For years we've used the term "patients." More recently, we broadened the concept to include "patients and families." Now there is debate over adding the term "consumer" to our lexicon, and whether it cheapens or undermines the sacred relationship we have with patients. 

The word "patient" comes from a Latin root, meaning "one who suffers." This acknowledges the vulnerability of everyone who needs healthcare. It recognizes the imperative to see our patients as people with needs, fears and concerns. It validates the physical and emotional suffering that often comes with illness, or even going through a routine test or exam. Most importantly, it underscores the imperative for empathy in healthcare. These are all important, especially as healthcare becomes more technology driven. Healthcare should always be focused on people taking care of people.

While these concepts should be enduring and foundational, other emerging dynamics should challenge us to expand our thinking. First, society is changing. We live in an age where convenience is prized, and nearly everything we buy or interact with is rated with stars and reviews. Our world has become heavily digital. These trends have transformed industry after industry, and they've now arrived at the doorstep of our hospitals and clinics.

The days of only going where our doctor recommends are waning. Choice is becoming more and more a part of healthcare. Ever increasing co-pays and deductibles are moving patients to place greater demands and expectations on our system — and these demands are often connected to convenience, accessibility and service. Patients are comparing their experience with us to those they have in other parts of their lives with sectors like retail and banking. Other sectors are also coming into the healthcare space, with companies like CVS and Amazon becoming competitors. Even the government has started to use star ratings and other mechanisms to respond to patient demands for increased transparency and choice.

I believe we ignore or short-change these changes at our peril. And, even worse, we risk losing the trust of our patients if we don't respond. So, rather than railing against the emergence of consumerism in healthcare, we need to embrace it. I believe we should be able to hold both concepts — of the people we serve being both patients and consumers — at the same time.

Acknowledging that patients are also consumers recognizes that they very often have choice. It highlights that we need to do much better at reducing the "administrative suffering" we inflict on patients — long waits for appointments, paperwork and disjointed communication, to name a few. It reinforces that we need to constantly work to make ourselves more accessible in a digital world. Rather than cheapening the notion of what it means to be a patient, the term "consumer" recognizes that patients are increasingly customers who make choices. When you look at it this way, the term actually reinforces the dignity and needs of those we serve. 

At my health system, recognizing this dynamic duality of patients as consumers at different moments of their journey is driving us to be better, to evolve and to innovate. It's propelled us to become a national leader in providing virtual visits in numerous settings. It's making us rethink the entire patient journey and reimagine what healthcare should be.

Seeing patients as consumers does not cheapen our work. In fact, it makes it even more exciting. I don't lie awake anymore debating these terms. Instead I'm thinking with my colleagues everyday about how we can better respond to our patients' deepest needs, including supporting and respecting the choices they have in the process. 

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