Patient or consumer? 9 thoughts on healthcare semantics

What should healthcare call the people who receive medical services — patients or consumers? And does it really matter?

The debate around healthcare nomenclature is growing. Although to some the debate may seem like a pointless exercise in hair-splitting semantics, the terms "patient" and "consumer" express very palpable differences and concerns about the future of healthcare.

Here are nine thoughts on the patient versus consumer debate.

  1. When people are ill or injured, they tend to view themselves as patients, like when someone awaits surgery from an inflamed appendix. When they are planning ahead for medical services, and compare the costs and benefits of providers online, people see themselves as consumers.

  1. Some stakeholders argue the term "patient" connotes passivity. This is at odds with how providers want patients to think about well-being and health management. Rather than passively receiving healthcare services, providers today want people to take charge of their health and become active participants in making healthcare decisions. In many cases, this means being a savvy consumer, like when researching the cost and quality of healthcare services.

  1. Other stakeholders believe the semantic debate boils down to a discussion of ethics — specifically, whether healthcare is a human right. "A patient deserves healthcare as right," Leana Wen, MD, wrote in Psychology Today. "But does a consumer? ... Using the language of [patients] being consumers could undermine this fundamental tenet."

  1. Generally, advocates for the term "consumers" see digital technology as the solution to many of healthcare's current problems, including access, costs and quality. 
  1. The digital age has increasingly shifted control to the individual, who is no longer limited to the options or choices in front of them. If the grocery store closes at 9 p.m., a consumer can get online and order groceries to his or her doorstep at 10 p.m.

  1. Similar to what has happened in retail, travel and finance, "consumer" advocates believe once the digital tools for proactive engagement in healthcare — direct scheduling, telehealth, control of personal information — are broadly available, population health will improve and healthcare costs will decline.

  1. That's not to say "patient" advocates don't support or believe in opportunities afforded by digital technology. Rather, some stakeholders — like physicians — are suspicious of the transactional "consumer" model, which treats healthcare services as commodities and deemphasizes the physician-patient partnership.

  1. "Physicians understand that healthcare is founded not only on expertise, but also on the capacity to build trust," Forbes wrote. "They recognize the power of the patient-physician relationship and its positive impact on healing, on patient adherence to mutually agreed-upon therapies, and on improved clinical outcomes."

  1. The debate over consumer versus patient is important and valuable because it asks physicians and hospital leaders to think about both personalized care and digital technology. More often than not, patients are both the receivers of care as well as its consumers. At the end of the day, it's up to the individual to decide — consumer or patient?

If you would like to submit your thoughts on the "patient versus consumer" debate for consideration in a feature article, please email Brooke Murphy at

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