Friday, June 29, 2012

Patient? Consumer? We Need a New Word

In the world of health care, as in most enterprises where we must interact with one another for mutual benefit,  we need words to describe one another. And the words we have for us people who use/need/want/ health care frankly don't cut the mustard. 

We need a new one.

The French gave us tasty food, the Statue of Liberty, and the wonderful phrase "le mot juste". Translated literally, it means "the exact word", invoked when a word fits a situation so precisely that angels sing. Suffice it to say, America is still searching for le mot juste to describe the patient/consumer/partner/person at the center of health care, and all its gnarly problems.

Why is "patient" not le mot juste? Because today I am a person, but tomorrow I could be a patient. Or today I am a patient, but please, please, tomorrow let me be just a person.

What's wrong with "consumer"? Most garishly, it speaks to a very one-way deal. You produce, I consume. The image that pops into my head is of Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars, resplendent in his slovenly girth, cackling obscenely as he tosses hapless, plaintive live creatures into his capacious gullet.

What about "partner"? Yes, this implies equal footing, equal contribution, equal investment, equal awareness, equal engagement...the "e-Patient" movement. A wonderful and worthy  community I urge everyone to join (at But (sigh,) for your average Joe or Martha, we ain't there yet.

"Person"...ah, what an inclusive, important and utterly white bread word. A "person" is what the census bureau refers to as something like an actual living person. As a fan of AMC's The Walking Dead, I can assure you sometimes you have to be almost on top of someone before you know if they're an actual, viable person, or just a "walker".  When I think of the "persons" out there, vibrant, precious, irreplaceable human beings like my friend Wally who fixes my car, or Oprah Winfrey, or Aurora who cuts my hair, the word "person" is just so lame and lifeless. Like "digit". 

The medical world is fond of acronyms. I believe at last count there were 3.2 million acronyms for various agencies, diseases, medical websites and companies that will tow your car for parking in the wrong spot at the hospital. But maybe there's just one more acronym that would perfectly capture the (insert word for patient here) trying to figure out how to survive/pay for/understand/participate in/improve/partner with/find health care.

It would be a combination of

Maybe pacoparper?
Copay partner? (closer)

My head hurts just thinking about it.

Maybe you can help me out here. Because, friends and fellow copay partners, paycoparpers or whomever you are, the Affordable Health Care act that the SUPCO (another acronym, used in newsrooms) passed is bringing in a new day. Whether that gets your knickers in a twist (another great borrowed phrase) or you're leaping with unbridled joy, there's important stuff you should really be paying attention to. Like looking out for medical harm and infections you get in the hospital that kill as many as 440,000 of us every year. (Imagine several planes crashing every day, and baby dolls and charred shoes littering Zuccotti Park. And Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains too.) It's not because most people that work in hospitals don't try really hard to stop it. But there's a whole lot going on in hospitals every day, with money changing hands in new ways, and lots of data entry to do and hand-offs and superbugs and paycoparpers who just lie back and expect to be fixed without their helping. 

But I digress.

We really need a new word. One that defines a whole new category of player in the game of health care. Those whose skin is oh-so-tightly in the game they would start shrieking like those clueless teenage girls in the Scream movies if they felt the pinch. Which they inevitably will, because pinches (defined in the Dictionary of Life as illness or accident to you or your favorite cousin) is what happens to humans.

We need a word for the kind of paycoparpers who hate to lose, or at least are aware they're knee-deep in a game where loss can be of the "ultimate" variety.

Please nominate your cool, new mot juste. The best new word wins a prize of my choosing.

Or maybe we should just ask the French.


  1. This is a difficult challenge! As a music therapist, the title given to the folks I serve changes by the setting - "resident" in long-term care, "patient" in hospice and hospitals, "client" in general settings. When my dad was going through his round of surgeries and hospital stays, he was just "Dad." I wish we could come up with a term that has the same tender feeling and depth of relationship as a family reference like that. "Person" doesn't cut it, because it is lifeless. "Gentleman" and "lady" are old-fashioned and smack of gender politics, and even "man" and "woman" don't leave room for people who don't identify with either gender. I hate "consumer."

    In blogging, I tend to default to "elders and caregivers" since most of my folks fall into those groups.

    So, how about:
    Folks receiving medical treatment
    Men, women and/or children seeking our care

    No, I don't think I can come up with just one word.

  2. What a lyrical (not surprising, given your profession) and thoughtful response, thank you! I agree...the words themselves are imprecise and incomplete. The phrases you suggest, "men, women and children seeking our care" and "folks receiving medical treatment" are very appropriate...but sadly, mainstream media, bloggers and institutions prefer their descriptors "short". That's why they default to "patient", "consumer", "resident" or "person", as their point of view at the time warrants.

    Most true is your observation that a new word must convey tender feeling and depth of relationship. I've tried the word "precious" and "irreplaceable" but I think they're a bit too strident for casual use and miss the mark.