About a year ago, I was working with a creative and innovative company in a space that is typically referred to as “patient engagement.” They hated that term. To them, it didn’t capture all that they did and lumped together a broad array of companies and solutions that had very little in common with one another.

During those discussions, we evaluated the words themselves: “patient” and “engagement.” While trying to redefine the terminology was too far out of reach, the debate around the word “patient” stuck in my head. Are they really “patients” or are they merely “people?”

It seems that I am not the only one battling with this terminology trouble. In an article last year, Becker’s Hospital Review interviewed senior management from health IT and insurance exchanges, and an actual MD. Talk about confusion. Each interviewee had his or her own brilliant definition and support of the proper terminology, but trying to find consensus among the group was unsuccessful. They even added an additional layer of “consumers” and “customers” as another way to refer to those who utilize healthcare services.

What’s in a word?


a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment.
synonym: sick person, long-suffering
from Latin patient-, patiens, from present participle of pati to suffer; perhaps akin to Greek pema which means suffering

In the context of the definition of the word “patient,” I started to put a filter on this discussion as a doctor might. As a doctor, I am here to stop the suffering and make sick people better. Thus, patient makes sense.

But what about as a person? What about when I’m not sick? Should I be defined by my sickness? Do I want to be as definition says, a sick person or suffering? What if I’m totally healthy and committed to doing everything to improve my health? Does “patient” best define me?

And why does the terminology matter? Some might say it doesn’t, but think about it. In light of a changing healthcare system—where people are more in charge of their experience and care than ever before—might the tone and the terminology used in communications matter?

People need to feel like they have a two-way relationship with their healthcare provider. And, in the land of population health, where primary care providers don’t always provide actual care but act more as an advocate or “quarterback” for your health, the goal is clearly more of a dialogue and partnership in a person’s health and wellness.

The word “patient,” as it is defined above, does not accurately represent this two-way relationship. A “person receiving medical treatment” implies a one-way interaction where the physician provides a service to the recipient and it ends there. Referring to people as “patients” does an injustice to the type of care they want to receive and hospitals wish to provide.

“People Have the Power”

To quote a song lyric from Patti Smith, the power is with the people and will continue this way. The “consumerization” of healthcare isn’t driven by healthcare organizations, but by the people themselves. It isn’t providers who are trying to turn patients into consumers. Patients are searching for information, doing their research, self-diagnosing, sharing opinions with others, and acting as a “consumer” would.

And, healthcare patients aren’t and shouldn’t be solely defined by their disease. They have lives outside of the hospital that providers need to acknowledge. Marketing communications needs to be sensitive to giving off the wrong impression and alienating the very population they seek to keep healthy.


So while the perfect word may still be up for debate, let’s agree to look forward and at least move from “patients” to “consumers.” It’s more accurate in representing each person’s larger story along the healthcare journey.

With nearly 30 years of deep understanding of how people think, feel, and behave, SPM brings the expertise to craft the right story across that journey and find the right language for marketing to people today. Want to hear more? Give us a shout!

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Bill Tourlas

SVP, Innovation & Engagement at SPM Marketing & Communications
With 30 years of experience, Bill is a recent addition to SPM’s ever-growing firepower. As a member of the leadership team, he drives the agency’s efforts to consistently reach new levels of innovation and engagement and to bring the full power of our ideas to life across traditional and new media channels. In his role, Bill collaborates with strategy, creative, and media teams for existing clients and is an active participant in new business efforts.
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