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

Confused about the words "patient" vs. "client"? This guide explores the impact of each term & helps you choose the language that best reflects your practice.

By Alex King on Mar 13, 2024.

Fact Checked by RJ Gumban.

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Why "client" vs. "patient" matters in your practice

You might not think much about how you address the people you serve. But the term you choose, whether it's "client," "patient," or something else, can subtly shape the dynamic in your practice.

While there are options like "users," "customers," or "guests," "client" and "patient" are the most common in healthcare. Choosing between them isn't just about preference – it can influence how you approach your practice and the message you convey.

This guide is for practitioners who are starting or re-evaluating their approach. We'll explore the key differences between "client" and "patient" to help you decide which term best reflects your philosophy and the experience you want to create.

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What each term really means

Let's break down the origins of these two terms. "Patient" stems from the Latin word "pati," meaning "to suffer." Historically, it implied a more passive role for the person receiving care. However, language evolves, and the term "patient" has come to encompass a more collaborative patient-practitioner relationship.

"Client," on the other hand, comes from the Latin word meaning "to obey." While this origin may not be ideal, the current understanding of "client" doesn't necessarily imply blind obedience. In many professional fields, including healthcare, "client" suggests a service-oriented relationship where the practitioner works to meet the client's needs and concerns.

Here's the key takeaway: While the historical roots of "patient" and "client" might raise eyebrows, their modern interpretations are more nuanced. "Patient" emphasizes importance in the medical context, while "client" can evoke a more transactional feel.

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 "patient" in mental health care?

Within mental health care, professionals with a medical background are more likely to use the term "patient." This includes:

  • Psychiatrists: Due to their extensive medical training and ability to prescribe medication, psychiatrists often view their practice through a medical lens, making "patient" a natural fit.
  • Mental health nurses (with a medical background): Similar to psychiatrists, some mental health nurses, particularly those with a strong medical background, may feel "patient" aligns better with their role in providing medical care alongside therapy.
  • Physicians with mental health specialties: Physicians specializing in mental health often manage medical and psychological aspects of a patient's well-being. Since their scope encompasses medical care, "patient" terminology feels more comprehensive.

These professionals may also work in settings where "patient" is more commonly used, such as inpatient facilities where care is more intensive and medical attention needs are more likely to arise.

Who uses "clients" in mental health care?

Many mental health and social workers themselves, particularly counselors and therapists, gravitate towards the term "client." This preference is often rooted in the collaborative nature of their work.

Here's why "client" might resonate more with these professionals:

  • Empowering language: "Client" emphasizes a partnership between the practitioner and the individual seeking help. It suggests a shared journey towards well-being, fostering trust and respect.
  • Focus on strengths: Unlike "patient," which can imply a deficit, "client" highlights the individual's strengths and the resources they bring to therapy.
  • Collaborative approach: The term "client" aligns better with the therapist's role as a guide and facilitator, working alongside the client to achieve their goals.

Additionally, non-hospital-based psychologists often refer to favor "client" as a person. This reflects a focus on outpatient therapy, which typically involves a less medicalized approach.

The impact of choosing "patient" vs. "client"

While both "patient" and "client" are used in mental health, your choice can subtly influence the dynamic in your practice. Let's explore five key considerations:

Responsibility and duty of care

The legal responsibility for treatment ultimately lies with the clinician. "Patient" emphasizes this responsibility, reflecting a relationship beyond a simple transaction of services. Think of a doctor diagnosing a medical illness versus a hair stylist providing a service to maintain it. While both professions aim for well-being, mental health practitioners can significantly impact their patients' lives.

However, "patient" might feel too strong in lower-stakes situations.

Accuracy and the nature of care

"Patient" arguably presents a more accurate portrayal of the individuals you treat. They are people seeking treatment options who seek intervention to alleviate suffering, whether physical or mental. The reality is, if someone comes to therapy, they're seeking help, not complete satisfaction. "Patient" better captures this dynamic than the broader term "client."

Building trust and vulnerability

Building trust is crucial for a successful therapy session. "Patient" might encourage vulnerability by implying greater trust in your therapeutic abilities. The association doctor-patient relationship with doctors and medical practitioners fosters a sense of confidence in your expertise.

This is particularly important if you prescribe medication or make significant treatment decisions. However, it could not be very clear whether professional services such as mentoring or coaching are available in non-hospital settings. A psychotherapist might be comfortable with "patients," while a counselor might prefer "clients."

Acknowledging intimacy and vulnerability

Therapy often involves sharing deeply personal fears and thoughts. "Patient" acknowledges the sensitive nature of the relationship and the level of care you provide. It emphasizes discretion and diligence on your part.

However, some clients might find "patient" too medicalized, especially for less intensive therapy treatments.

Collaboration and shared responsibility

Mental health treatment is increasingly seen as a collaborative effort. "Client" can emphasize and reflect this shared responsibility, where the therapist acts as a guide and facilitator, working alongside the client to achieve their goals. This collaborative approach aligns well with the training many therapists receive, fostering a sense of empowerment for the whole professional-client relationship.

Choosing the right term for your practice

There's no single "correct" term for everyone. Both "patient" and "client" have advantages and disadvantages when choosing how to identify and address the individuals you serve.

Here's a quick recap:

  • "Patient" emphasizes the medical aspects of care, responsibility, and the potential for a deeper therapeutic relationship.
  • "Client" highlights collaboration, empowerment, and a broader approach to well-being.

Ultimately, the best term for your practice depends on your philosophy and the care professional service you provide. Here are some additional tips:

  • Be flexible: If someone prefers "patient" or "client," respect their choice.
  • When unsure, ask: If you're unsure which term to use initially, a simple "How would you like me to address you?" can go a long way.
  • Consider your setting: Inpatient facilities with a more medicalized approach might lean towards "patient," while outpatient therapists might favor "client."

By understanding the nuances of "patient" and "client," you can make an informed decision that aligns with your practice philosophy. This guide is just the beginning! Carepatron has a library of therapy resources to help you navigate the many other choices you expect you'll face as a new practitioner.

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