Directors Message 062510

June 21, 2010
Kristine Hodsdon, the director of RDH eVillage, examines the results of a survey that asks readers whether the people served in dental offices are clients or patients.

The battle rages over using the word “client or patient” in regard to the people we serve. A recent RDH eVillage survey found that 93.7% of the respondents answered that they refer to the people we serve as “patients.” In our examination of the “client vs. patient” debate, we received over 839 international responses, from a mix of dental hygienists, doctors, dental assistants, and office mangers.

A merely 6.3%, or 53 dental professionals use the terminology of “client.”

The survey respondents were invited to share a comment in regard to this debate, and 419 of you had an extra thought or two on the subject.

The following passionate responses summarize the key points from the “client” camp.

• As a health-care provider in an industry that relies on customer service, I believe that “client” is more appropriate. More importantly, however, “client” is a term that is more reflective of a collaborative relationship between the practitioner and the person receiving the care, putting the relationship on a level playing field as equals. The term “patient,” on the other hand, gives an impression of a less equal relationship where the practitioner is in a superior power position to the recipient of the care. I believe that, while this has been the historic attitude in medicine and dentistry, it is inappropriate by today’s standards where clients are equal participants in the care they receive (i.e., informed consent).

• When we regard the people we serve as "clients" rather than "patients," there is a perception shift of where the responsibility lies. Clients are responsible for themselves and choose us to assist them in attaining the level of health that they want for themselves. They understand that dental diseases are lifestyle diseases, and good oral health requires choosing a healthy lifestyle. A "patient" puts the responsibility for their health and welfare on the professionals to "take care" of them, instead of facilitating them to "take care" of themselves.

• Patients, if you are constantly triaging their needs. Clients, if you are helping develop and manage their needs.

The responses in the “patient” camp mirrored the premise that we are health-care providers, providing care as opposed to the services provided by lawyers, salesmen, manicurists, realtors, and hairdressers (professions that were referenced countless times). Another recurring theme is that many believe that “client” focuses more on “making money” or “business first” vs. delivering care, since they come to our offices for treatment in order to have healthier mouths and improved overall wellness.

• Doctors treat patients! Lawyers have clients.

• I believe that anyone who comes into our office is a patient, or a potential patient, or the parent of a patient. "Client" is defined as someone who receives advice or services, and "patient" as someone who receives care. I feel that lends itself to feelings of a more personal relationship between the patient and the provider. I prefer to use the word "patient" because I try to create that type of relationship with my patients, enabling them to confide in me if they feel the need and to offer them a more personal touch to their dental visit.

• Physicians and nurses do not refer to their patients as "clients," and they are in the health care field. It seems unprofessional to refer to patients as clients; it makes them sound as though we are seeing them purely for monetary reasons and not for their health.

• Clients to the practice, patients to the provider.

Lastly, the following comment, which supported a small amount of views, was brutally straightforward: “Really? This is not even a valid question. I sometimes question people that are health-care providers. I am greatly concerned that this is even a topic. “

Editor’s Note: I apologize for structuring survey question #3 to read: “Choose the state that you provide, or assist in providing dental care.” After reading the 26 pages of responses, my ignorance was exposed. I now appreciate that we have a true international audience, and I will no longer make the assumption that all readers are from the United States.

Kristine A. Hodsdon RDH, BS
Director, eVillage