Patient vs client in private practice: What term should practitioners use?

Using the correct terminology is often overlooked but is crucial to running a great medical practice.

Significance of using either client or patient terms in your practice

The way you refer to the people who use your services as a medical practitioner is an often overlooked aspect of your practice. Whether it is “clients”, “patients”, “users”, “customers”, or “guests”, the term you use can have significant consequences in setting the tone of your professional relationship and your practice as a whole. Of the terms listed, “client” and “patient” are by far the most commonly used across the healthcare industry. The term you choose for your practice may seem like an inconsequential decision. Still, it will actually have connotations for the way you conduct your practice, and convey, however unintentionally, a message about you. As such, if you are just starting out and have found you need to make this decision, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to find out the differences between these terms, and which is best suited to your practice. 

Client or patient: Understanding what each of the words means

“Patient” comes from the Latin pati meaning “to suffer”, making the meaning of the word patient: “sufferer”. Before you rip every patient label off your files, let’s remember that the meaning of words evolves and changes through their usage over many years. Still, there has been a large movement to empower and elevate the traditional role of the patient to an equal partner in care with their practitioner, and one could argue that designating one in the relationship as the “sufferer” could hinder the progress of this movement somewhat.

The other common term for users of a healthcare service; “client”, comes from the Latin “to obey” which really isn’t a lot better than “sufferer” from a purely etymological standpoint. However, as we said before, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person referred to as a client who feels real offense at the term for this reason, and the meaning of client has certainly evolved from its roots as “one who obeys”.

While “patient” used to mean a person who diligently suffers the treatments thrust upon them as a complacent, docile, and ultimately passive observer, it has evolved and lost many of its “passive sufferer” connotations. Today, the word “patient” certainly has medical connotations, whereas the more general word client may conjure more transactional images of lawyers, hairdressers, or social workers; all of whom also have clients. 

Who uses 'patients' in mental health?

In mental health, the term “patient” is more commonly used by practitioners with a medical background such as psychiatrists, mental health nurses, or physicians with mental health specialties. Additionally, mental health workers such as therapists or psychologists who treat people in an inpatient setting are more likely to use the word patient to reflect the higher degree of care required. These practitioners may also have a wider scope of practice beyond mental health treatment to encompass medical care as well, and therefore the term patient comes more naturally to them. For mental health professionals with many years of medical experience, the term “client” may evoke a transactional relationship that they cannot reconcile with their own patient rapport they have spent years building up. 

Who uses 'clients' in mental health?

“Client” is often the preferred term mental health workers such as counselors or therapists encounter in their training, and many choose to go on using this term in their practice as a result. The term is likely to be used by practitioners concerned about the perceived power shift associated with the word patient. Calling someone a patient can imply that they have a deficit or a need for hospital-level treatment, rather than elevating them to an equal partner in their mental health treatment. A counselor working with an otherwise healthy individual on a particular problem may jeopardize the trust placed in them to be treated with dignity and respect by using the term patient. As such, counselors, therapists, and non-hospital-based psychologists will frequently use the word client in their practice.

4 reasons to switch to saying 'patient' instead of 'client'


While it is a great move for patients to actively participate in their care, the legal responsibility for treatment ultimately lies with the clinician. The relationship between clinician and patient transcends being simply transactional, as opposed to a client of a hairdresser or a financial advisor, and while these professions are invested in the wellbeing of their clients, mental health practitioners can have their patients’ lives in their hands. “Patient” therefore indicates a greater duty of care than “client”, which may be accurate- but could also seem out of place in lower-stakes clinical situations.


It could be argued that “patient” is a more accurate term for the role of the people you treat at your practice. Separate from the term’s etymology, a patient is someone who needs an intervention to alleviate their suffering- whether that is physical, or mental. A harsh reality of working in mental health is that if someone is coming to see you, it’s not because they feel completely satisfied and content. As such, the term “patient” better captures the specific dynamics of the practitioner-patient relationship than “client”, which is more broadly used.

Trust factor

Building trust with your patients is crucial for a constructive therapeutic relationship. The term “patient” gives them permission to be vulnerable with you and connotes higher trust in your therapeutic abilities than the term client. Due to the immediate association between medical practitioners and the word “patient”, the trust placed in the practitioner using the word “patient” will undoubtedly be greater than when using the word “client”. This is great if you are prescribing medication or making significant treatment decisions for your patients, but could be confusing in certain non-hospital-based scenarios, such as in mentoring or coaching sessions, and while a psychotherapist may be comfortable having “patients, a counselor may prefer “clients”. 


What could be more intimate than sharing your deepest fears, desires, and thoughts with someone else? Patients come to their mental health clinicians seeking help in an often vulnerable state with deeply personal issues. By using the term “patient”, you are affirming the importance you place on their care, and the level of discretion and diligence they can expect from you.


Ultimately, the term you use is up to you and your preferences and experience. We recommend being flexible with the term you use if someone has their own preferences, and if you’re unsure as to which to use for someone, you can always ask. The take-home message of this article is that “patient” has unavoidable medical connotations since it is the most widespread term in hospitals around the world. Whereas “client” is the more general term, and while it is the preferred term for non-hospital-based mental health workers, you are unlikely to hear it in medical practices any time soon. 

Now that you have a better idea of which term you prefer to use between “patient” and “client”, you can focus on one of the many other dilemmas facing practitioners starting out. Will you practice solo or as part of a group? What payment method will you accept? Luckily, Carepatron is here to help every step of the way.

Practice management software

Further reading:

Join 10,000+ teams using Carepatron to be more productive

One app for all your healthcare work