Having worked in healthcare for more than 40 years, I frequently am told stories about people’s encounters with the U.S. healthcare system. Here is one I heard recently from a friend of mine.

One day, my friend received a call from the office of one of his doctors. The woman on the line told my friend that his upcoming appointment had to be cancelled and rescheduled. She did not apologize or in any way acknowledge the inconvenience. She mentioned some days and times the doctor was available, but none fit my friend’s busy schedule. He suggested a Friday afternoon. The woman said, “The doctor has a very busy schedule all week and doesn’t work on Friday afternoons.”

This encounter with legacy healthcare may not be as bad as some stories I have heard about insurance problems, care gaps, or even long waiting times. However, it is a highly revealing episode. 

In virtually any other business encounter, a person who is cancelling an appointment with a customer would at the very least apologize and perhaps acknowledge that the customer’s time is valuable. This may seem a simple gesture. However, in an ordinary business interaction, it is the difference between rudeness and respect. 

At a deeper level, this situation exhibits an inability on the part of the healthcare staff person to look at the encounter through the eyes of the patient. The person on the phone was focused solely from the doctor’s perspective.

She did not recognize that my friend, too, has a busy schedule and that he in all likelihood does not have the luxury of taking Fridays off. 

Equally important, the two parties did not seem to be operating as a team to solve this problem. From the caller’s point of view, my friend was not a collaborator; he was a problem to be solved. 

We often discuss in these blog pages the use of technology to improve the patient experience in healthcare—online scheduling, patient-physician messaging, telehealth. Although these tools are important, they would not have solved the problem illustrated by this story. 

The problem was not about technology, it was about perspective. 

“Patient” is the most common term that providers use to describe the people on the other side of the delivery continuum. More recently, “consumer” has emerged as a popular alternative. My friend’s call with his doctor’s office started me thinking about how I would like my healthcare providers to think of me in the many and varied healthcare experiences I’ve had or may have as a consumer, a patient, or a family member; as an outpatient, an inpatient, or simply a person with a question. 

Rather than a patient or a consumer, I think I would prefer to be thought of as a client. The term client suggests a level of collaboration, dedication, and mutual respect that elevates the perspective of all care delivery relationships.

A client deserves to be listened to. To serve a client means to understand that client’s situation and expectations. 

A client deserves the best level of service to meet those needs. That service should demonstrate dedication, skill, insight, tenacity, and courtesy.

A client deserves honesty. When the best evidence suggests the client is facing long odds or a performance problem, the client deserves to know. 

A client deserves collaboration. Communication between client and service provider should be continuous and commensurate. Neither is subordinate to the other. Both are working together. 

A client deserves creativity and choices. In healthcare, as in almost any other situation, a need can be met with different solutions based on the problem and the person. Creativity is required to take all factors into account so that the client can see and choose among tailored options.

A client deserves respect and attention beyond any specific immediate need. The professional service provider looks at the world from the client’s perspective. The service provider cares about the client far beyond the particular project or stated need. The service provider has a genuine interest in the broader well-being of the client, from the client’s busy business schedule to the client’s family and friends. A professional service provider should be as generous as possible with time for a client.

These qualities should be intrinsic to the relationship between anyone providing and receiving almost any service, but especially a healthcare service. In business, this type of relationship is a foundation for a successful company. In everyday life, it is a foundation for mutual respect. In healthcare, it is a foundation for health and wellbeing. Nothing could be more important. 

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