Words Matter: Patient vs. Person

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As healthcare professionals we are rightfully proud of the work we do for the people we serve.

The medical traditionally refers to those we serve as “patients.” “Medical” is defined as “of, relating to, or concerned with physicians or the practice of medicine.” A “patient” is defined as “a person who is sick or injured.” These words suggest dependency and helplessness.

The mantra for many caregivers has been, “Don’t worry, you are in good hands and I will take good care of you.”

The people we serve will indeed be “patients” at times –but not all the time. We need to ensure that we meet ALL OF THE NEEDS of those we serve, not just their medical needs. We need to remember that a person is only a “patient” when they are at the doctor’s office or if they are in a hospital. Even if someone is living in a nursing home, they are not “patients” 24/7! We are not “patients” when we are living in our own homes.

Changing the culture of aging starts by having a more person-centered focus. One of the best ways to change our focus is by thinking deeply about the language we use. WORDS MATTER.

In order to focus on customer service, many hospitals have begun to call those they serve “clients” instead of patients. Similarly, many long-term care organizations have adopted the word “resident” for those they serve. What is implied by this language?

A “client” is defined as, “a person using the services of a professional person.” A “resident” is defined as “a person who lives somewhere permanently or on a long-term basis.” While the terms “client” and “resident” infer autonomy and more power to the person being served, neither are as inclusive as “PERSON.”

A “person” is defined as “a human being regarded as an individual.” Person-Centered Care transforms a “patient” and a “client” and a “resident” into a PERSON, and an “institutional environment” into a HOME.

Person-Centered Care in nursing homes involves enabling self-determination, choice, dignity and meaningful relationships for those who live and work there. Making the conscious effort to move away from always using the word “patient” helps us stay focused on achieving this goal.

This doesn’t change our job from meeting the needs of those we serve, but it does change what we focus on by making sure that the person has a voice in what we do and how we do it. It is our responsibility to partner with the people we serve to determine their preferences and goals so we can enhance their well-being and quality of life as they direct their daily lives.

Being intentional about the words we use can help everyone move toward person-centered care.

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