Healthcare Communications

Why we are no longer using the ‘patient’ word

7/02/2019 8:35 am

While a lot of us don’t like to get bogged down in etymology, when it comes to particular words, their origins can still carry connotations that persist today. Let’s take the word ‘patient’ – a term that is commonplace in the healthcare comms industry. Though this may be the case, the act of challenging these terms can offer a lot of insight into the way we view those we see as patients.

Where does ‘patient’ come from?

Coming from the Latin, ‘patiens’ which means to suffer or bear, ‘patient’ remains one of the most used words in the healthcare sector. Yet, the word is intrinsically passive. It sets up the person receiving care as subversive to the services they are using. Today, that just isn’t the case. Patient-led care is now at the forefront of drug development and care in general. As such, the passivity of such a word no longer makes sense. In fact, people receiving care can be thought of as active participants who are consciously trying to improve their health.

From here on out, we at COUCH have decided to make a conscious decision to refer to those individuals that are accessing healthcare services as, ‘health seekers’, a term which is more appropriate in stressing the active nature of those seeking to improve their own health.

A health seeker is any person concerned with improving their health. Health seeking is the motivation felt by a person to improve their wellbeing, in pursuit of what they individually define as ‘healthy’. For some, ‘healthy’ is the lack of any symptoms pertaining to disease or illness. For others, it is the maximum level of health they can individually achieve, in relation to performance, physique or lifestyle. Regardless of individual goals, every health seeker is empowered to seek their optimum level of health.

The importance of identity in healthcare comms

Language can only take us so far when considering our perception of others. Naturally, we can’t cover the whole concept of identity within a blog, but it’s important to explore the topic in order to uncover how language, and healthcare comms can affect health seekers. Some light reading on identity can take you on a journey from simple opinions to full-blown sociological theory. Some awareness of this, especially in the context of healthcare can make for better decision-making though. Whether you’re a follower of Erving Goffman and believe that we have no true self, but rather are a projection of our surroundings and the roles we play according to those surroundings, or you’re not even sure who that is. We are all concerned with the topic of identity and moreover, empowerment. Why? Because at some point in our lives, we are all health seekers. Whether living – not suffering – from a long-term illness or a mild health worry, both persons fall under the term, health seeker.

You are more than your condition

Yet, it is the distinctions between the two conditions, mild health worry and long-term illness that carry certain presumptions about the health seeker. If you go out and have a look at the health communications industry, or even scientific research, you’ll see a wealth of information on health seekers living with conditions like AIDS or cancer. With cultural implications that became most prevalent during the 1980s, linked to icons like Freddie Mercury. AIDS still bears the weight of ill-informed opinions of the condition. It is these presumptions that can affect health seekers negatively, leading them to believe that they are their condition, when in fact, they are more than that. Contrastingly, cancer can be seen by many as a death sentence, a marker of frailty and sickness. While cancer remains elusive in terms of a definitive cure, science is now advancing at a phenomenal rate, and there are new clinical trials all the time that are offering hope to health seekers. The key is to see past the illness, disease or condition. To see the human, with all their traits, hopes, and aspirations.

Once we, the healthcare comms industry and beyond, actively do away with those societal connotations of illness that are not founded on scientific evidence and accurate research, we can begin to empower the health seekers we encounter, create materials for, and ultimately, support to lead their best lives.

About the author

COUCH is a new breed of health communications agency that, due to a very personal experience, has at its core a mission to improve the lives of everyone. And so we are motivated by the profound understanding that, collectively, we need to do better. We are human to work with because we focus on using our skills and expertise for the common good.


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