Client or Patient? Using The Right Lingo in Your Practice

Written by Howard Spector on October 5, 2016

You can call your consumer either a client or patient, but first, realize the significance behind both words.

Your first bad grade came on a back-to-school seventh-grade writing assignment in which you were supposed to detail the activities you did in the summer. “The word ‘things’,” your teacher wrote in thick red marker, “is not descriptive!”

You now have the introspection to realize that writing, “I did a lot of things this summer. Some of the things were fun. Some of the things were just okay, but overall I was busy with all of the things I did,” doesn’t say very much. Details are significant, and so are words in particular.

The words we choose and use as humans play a significant role in how we see the world and how others view us and interpret our statements and feelings. As a counselor, you realize the importance of word choice, which is why you’re trying to decide whether to address the person you’re treating as a client or patient.

The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is far from reality. The people your practice sees are suffering from emotional wounds, many of which are created by the words people speak to them, or the negative messages they replay in their head.

So, how do you refer to the people you treat? Would you call them a client or patient? Does the word you use even matter?

Client or patient? Understanding what the words mean

01-client-or-patient-using-the-right-lingo-in-your-practiceThe word patient comes from the Latin “pati” for “suffering” meaning “the one who suffers.” Currently, Merriam-Webster defines patient as “a person who receives medical care or treatment.” With the first known origin in the 14th century, a patient’s traditional role is as an individual who relies on a doctor for assistance.

The word client was adopted by the mental health field as a rejection of the medicinal significance of “patient.” Instead of a patient who needs a clinician to offer treatment, a client seeks the assistance of a counselor as more of a confidential teammate for improving a bio-psycho-social aspect of her life. Though clients are much more than “customers” in terms of the word choice, they can be viewed in that way. Clinicians provide a service, and the clients pay a fee.

Does it matter if you choose either client or patient?

02-client-or-patient-using-the-right-lingo-in-your-practiceThe words you use as a counselor reflect how you think about the type of help you offer to the people who come to your practice. Dr. Paul DePompo, a board certified cognitive therapist, says, “The words that therapists use to describe the people they treat also speaks volumes about how they see their role. Are they the doctor who is the “fixer” (patient) or do they see themselves as a collaborative part of the “team” (client)?”

Your word choice also reflects on treatment available to those who come to your office. Ebonie Walker, a licensed clinical social worker, says, “The term patient is from the medical model, which is deficit (problem) focused modality. I use the term client because I am a strength-based, solution-focused clinician, meaning that I focus on the client’s positive characteristics (strengths) to help them see that it is possible to overcome their obstacles. I feel that by using ‘client’, it emphasizes that our therapeutic relationship is a collaboration, whereas the client has the innate ability to be resilient and I am the facilitator or guide in that process. Conversely, patient implies that there is something wrong with the individual and our relationship is one in which I am there to fix them. I hope to empower individuals as a client versus enabling them as a patient.”

Similarly, licensed marriage and family therapist, Lee Berg Marchesani, says, “The term patient evokes the concept of someone who is sick, which is not how I view my clients. I see my clients as functioning people who are stuck in some aspect of their life or their relationships.”

However, there are still counselors who believe that by treating someone’s mental health, the term patient is the better choice of words. Tom Linde says, “This can all be summarized like so: I deliver care in support of your overall wellness. This makes me a health practitioner, and it makes you a patient.”

So, what will you call the people who seek your help?

03-client-or-patient-using-the-right-lingo-in-your-practiceThere isn’t a rule in place that requires you to use either client or patient in your practice, but it’s important to determine. While most counselors prefer to use “client,” a psychologist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner, both with many years of schooling and medical training, may use the term “patients.” Other counselors will find “patients” very uncomfortable, yet embrace “clients.” You’re the only person who will know which suits you and your practice best.

If you’re unsure of what word to use, don’t worry about it. Try surveying the people you treat. Ask them how they feel about both words, then, trust their opinions (and yourself) and commit to one or the other.

It doesn’t matter to us if you’re working with a client or patient (though we do use the term “client” most often here). SimplePractice has you covered for your entire practice needs. With everything from electronic claim filing to appointment reminders, we can automate your processes and make you a more efficient clinician. Try us now for a free 30-day trial.

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About the Author

Howard is the CEO and Co-founder of SimplePractice. Howard has over 20 years of experience in the information technology industry. He is proud to have earned his MA in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

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