Practice Management

Patient vs Client: On the Psyche and Practioner


Ron Weintraub


April 20, 2021

April 20, 2021

Currently, the healthcare community is divided in regard to identifying our patient population as either patients or clients. Some dental professionals might be dismissive about the distinction and think the term can be used interchangeably. However, distinguishing between the two is more than linguistics - it projects a proper relationship between a dental practitioner and persons who are consulting for treatment or advice. These changes in identification of our population base were in the works before third party ownership and the accelerated trend towards more team involvement in treatment existed. Defining and clarifying this relationship given third-party ownership, huge changes in the delivery system of oral healthcare, and the enormous impact of the ongoing pandemic on our professional interactions, is of paramount importance.

What are our values?

Before we choose between using the terms patients and clients to identify those who fill our waiting rooms, we need to address our values. Based on the assumption that as healthcare professionals we choose to have the classical patient/ doctor relationship, we use patients to refer to those under our care. By valuing the healthcare aspect of the relationship with the person seeking and receiving treatment from a qualified, licensed healthcare professional using the term patient has merit. On the other hand, those who refer to financial values, lean towards the term client. However, despite the inevitable financial outcome, the client receives active treatment from the medical professional.

How Can We Decide?

Conceivably, future government involvement in paying for necessary dental care might alter the financial obligation of the client’s treatment decision- making. As such, one of the definitions of a client would be eliminated. It will predispose that treatment decisions will be based on clinical findings and the patient’s acceptance. Therefore, the ambiguity of the use of client should be removed.
Another example of the use of patient and client is within the profession of pharmacy. Pharmacists are attempting to move back to their former image from substance providers to one of consultation and medical support in order to deal with patients. Some of their responsibilities include the following: explaining the use of the prescriptions dispensed, advising about potential interaction of pharmaceuticals, and giving vaccinations. Medical professionals deal with health-related issues and have interactions with those who seek advice or service. They have patients. On the other hand, professionals such as accountants, lawyers, and architects also provide a service for which they have an arranged fee. They have clients.
Some in the medical field have divided up the population to differentiate the appropriateness of calling the patient population clients if they seek the assistance of a counsellor for confidential treatment for improving a bio/psycho/ social aspect of their lives. Clinicians provide a health-related service and clients pay for services rendered.

What Do Dentists Think?

Dentists presumably have patients. Some healthcare workers stipulate that clients have choices, but patients do not share in decision-making as part of the patient/practitioner interface. This crucial distinction goes to the heart of the population’s interaction with our profession. Prospective patients, many of whom choose our office to avail themselves, first go on the internet to see the décor and physical appearance of various practitioners. They see themselves as clients. They enter into a primarily financial relationship with a healthcare practitioner and apply their own criteria for successful engagement, as they would for acquiring a commodity. Under these circumstances, it is more difficult to build a trusting relationship by accepting the diagnosis and treatment plan required as suggested by the dental practitioner.
For example, recently, a pediatrician called me to ask what was “going on” in dentistry as his daughter’s general dentist suggested that her two daughters required orthodontic intervention. He provided her with contact information of two different orthodontic practitioners with whom he had a positive working relationship. However, his daughter went online to seek the information she felt necessary to make her decision. The two different offices had excellent websites; however, no clinical results were included on the website. This highlights how important it is to include evidence of success in portraying the dental office for future patients.

Whether dental practitioners and those who seek our services think of themselves as patients or as clients is determined by the quality of our offerings as affecting the general health and well-being of those entrusted to our care.

Whether dental practitioners and those who seek our services think of themselves as patients or as clients is determined by the quality of our offerings as affecting the general health and well-being of those entrusted to our care.
In the 21st Century, when dentists are becoming more involved with the general anatomy and pathology of the head and neck, it is incumbent upon us to assume the added responsibility to refer to those in our care as patients. Defining the role that dentistry plays in the health of the well-being of the general population is a priority. As knowledgeable dentists, we can be active in this dynamic to promote the doctor/ patient relationship as the norm throughout our profession.