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‘Patient’ vs ‘Client’ - does Semantics matter?

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

For many, the word "patient" is old-fashioned – even taboo.


The origin of the word goes back to Latin, deriving from meaning “to suffer,” and it makes sense in a lot of contexts. Most people don’t take issue with describing back pain as “suffering,” or a doctor whose role is to prescribe you some pain medicine and send you on your way.

“Patient” implies a hierarchical relation – wherein a treatment plan travels one way – from doctor to patient. Additionally, the term patient implies “suffering.” For many people, that’s not an helpful way to look at therapy.

The word "client" has come to represent a more egalitarian view of the therapeutic relationship (Joseph, 2010).

But client, too, is not a perfect term. For many, it sounds like a business relationship. In this view, the therapist is a business, who provides services to a client for a fee. But a person’s relationship with their therapist is much more than economics and involve compassion, empathy and caring.


Personally, I can’t imagine referring to a person in my care as a client. It just sounds and feels unnatural to me, whereas the term "patient" resonates better with me, for a number of reasons:

1

Patior” also means “to experience, to wait”. The therapeutic process implies experiencing certain inner situations and also knowing how to wait so that change can take place, thus the word “patient” makes full sense.

2

In my view, psychotherapy is not about selling a product or service. Psychotherapy is a process. It is set in motion by a need, which prompts the person to seek "help".

My personal opinion is that there is a collective resistance about being perceived a fragile and/or in need. This includes feeling fragile in the presence of another person.

This might lead many to reject terms (or adjectives) that resonate with images of fragility.

In English, "patient" simply means "person who suffers"... and we all suffer. There is no shame in it, pain is universal - we all carry it within. In this sense, we are all potential patients: the word should be thought of as a a role within the context of the therapeutic relationship, rather than a label.

The role of a psychotherapist is to offer tools to integrate the pain, to make sense of it so that it will not lead your life on your behalf.

3

Finally, the word "patient" is more conducive to establishing trust than “client”. Implicit to the term “patient” are important elements, without which the therapeutic relationship could not progress.

In their paper, Raphael and Emmerson (1991) emphasize the importance of the patient role. While our ultimate goals may be to promote autonomy, maturity, and self-actualization, many people must first be allowed to regress within the safety of the therapy relationship before they can move forward in a healthy way.

The role of “patient” is well-established in the popular mind. It effortlessly promotes a kind of regressed openness to the care and knowledge of the healing figure. It implicitly gives permission to the patient to be, well, a patient.

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