In the business world, anyone walking through the door is deemed a potential customer. However, in a medical or hospital setting, thinking of patients as “customers” can be a sensitive subject. Some believe that calling patients customers could lead medical staff to become more focused on satisfying customer wants than on quality care. Others, however, feel that changing the term to customer empowers patients to be more involved in their care.
Patient vs. Customer
At first glance, the definition of patient seems noncontroversial: a person receiving medical assistance. However, according to Current Psychiatry, the connotations of the word can be far from empowering. A patient must rely on others for their health and well-being; patients are not self-sufficient and lack total control over their situation.
This negative relationship has led some medical administrators to begin using words like consumer and customer instead of patient. According to this line of thinking, the medical customer is empowered to make choices and decisions; they can reasonably expect quality service and respect. However, this can lead to tension with doctors, nurses and administrators, particularly when dealing with the old adage that “the customer is always right.”
The Risks of the Customer Patient
Those who disagree with the change from patient to customer see consumer-oriented healthcare as an attempt to appease those seeking medical care rather than giving them proper medical treatment. Rather than focusing on the best interests of the patient, they say, consumer-based medical providers are driven by what the consumer wants. For example, notes Modern Healthcare, some patients now request expensive, unnecessary treatments or tests such as additional ultrasounds for low-risk pregnancies. This can be exacerbated by health-related message boards, self-diagnostic websites and “expert” blogs that often make symptoms appear worse or more related than they actually are.
Further, they feel that by calling a patient a customer, the focus automatically shifts to profit. It’s a concern with some validity, because the traditional view for many non-medical businesses is that the customer with the most funds or highest potential to pay is treated above those who are “window shoppers” or who may cause revenue losses. However, healthcare providers have a moral obligation to provide every patient with the same customer service and strive for equal levels of satisfaction regardless of the patient or customer’s potential return on investment.
Striving for Patient Satisfaction
At healthcare offices and hospitals around the nation, the debate on the positives and negatives of referring to a patient as a customer continues. Those administrators and healthcare providers who use the latter term must determine how to keep the focus on providing the best care in a culture where money and customer requests could trump medical know-how. On the flip side, those who continue with the traditional use of the term patient must ensure that patients are empowered to ask questions and have the best information possible on which to base their medical decisions.
Safe and Secure Environment
However, the end goal should ultimately remain the same for both sides: providing the best and most efficient care without sacrificing the patient/customer experience. It’s important to remember that regardless of the outcome of the patient/customer debate or other secondary issues like these, your facility should be focused first on establishing a safe and secure environment. Quality care is dependent upon this foundation.


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