August 1, 2019

Why Patients Are Not Customers


Cambridge Dictionary defines a customer as “a person who buys goods or services.” In other words, customers are people you serve or consumers. Similarly, patients do consume healthcare – some, literally ingest medicine, others utilize healthcare services such as lab tests, consultation and/or imaging services.

Definitely, in the eyes of hospital owners, they meet all the criteria to be identified as “clients” or “customers”.

No wonder we often see people in the media complaining of how some hospitals don’t provide good “customer care”. Nowadays, most healthcare facilities are striving to be rated number one in providing “customer care”.

Patients’ reviews and feedback have become an important metric to measure hospitals’ performance. Like client review restaurants, hospitals can be rated good or bad based on how long someone sat in the waiting room.

This is not to say that patients’ feedbacks are invaluable. Constructive feedback is very important and allows one to improve. However, life is our most valuable asset, not comparable to food or any other asset. A patient deserves to be treated, not as a client or a consumer, but as a person. Here is why.

Patients are vulnerable and have no choices

Clients have the ability to choose where they spend money. Service providers want to attract customers who are likely to spend money. A patient often has no choice. Think of someone in a rural area. They are in a system where whenever they get sick, they should go to one health center. If their disease is complicated, they are transferred to a district hospital in that district. Or if you are having a sudden health problem, you don’t have that time to go shopping – looking for a better cardiologist to treat your heart attack.

Patients are more vulnerable. Some are completely lost in the bigger system, and don’t have a choice at all. The emergency room where you wake up after 3 weeks in a coma, is not something you shopped for on Jumia.

Business in healthcare does more damage

Access to health is among basic human rights. It shouldn’t be something that rich people access and poor people crave for. The healthcare industry has been pushed more and more into a business model looking for profits of some individuals. Case in point is healthcare in the United States, which is among the worst globally.

Trying to make it a business, is mainly the reason why patients are now regarded as customers or someone bringing money. As a nation, we should look far and learn from the mistakes of others.

Making profits versus delivering care

Indisputably, there is an undeniable level of inequality in the patient-doctor relationship. Most people think that referring to patients as customers, elevates their level of importance in the doctor-patient relationship. Referring to a patient as a client or a customer doesn’t remove that inequality. It makes the client dominant, with some fake power but at the end of the day, the so-called client loses – because in the business world, profit comes first and then care second.

Service or healthcare providers (the one who treat customers) have a commitment to making profits for their hospitals. Physicians, however, have a responsibility to patients.

Patients are not always right

Being a customer or a client implies that I get the services I want. It means that I am right and I know exactly what I want. However, patients are not always right and good doctors should be able to tell them that they are not right.

A patient cannot, or should not, go to the hospital demanding certain things; medication or other services. They should demand good care, but that care might mean denying the patient what the patient thinks she/he needs. The doctor is not a servant you dictate what to do. A doctor does not have to do everything the patient wants. She or he is obligated to do everything the patient needs.

Conclusion

As a medical student, the people I will take care of on a daily basis are MY patients. They are neither my clients nor customers. To call suffering and vulnerable individuals such business terms implies that patient-doctor relationship is sorely based on a transaction of exchanging goods for money. As Dr. McCrory said: “When patients become clients, they seem less vulnerable than they are and less in need of compassion or care. The medicine must return to patients care and not merely customer service”.


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