May 29, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Clients, clientele, and jargon

Posted in client/clientele, jargon/buzzwords at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I wonder if you would address the use of clientele by researchers in the health sector, especially when referring to residents in aged-care (nursing home). Am I being overly critical or is this use of the word borderline jargon?

Thanks so much for your clear common sense approach to editing.

Honey, this isn’t borderline jargon, this is full-on, full-tilt jargon.

It started, I think, in the nineties in the fields of psychiatry and psychology, and it has caught on across much of the medical world, to the point that it is definitely regular medical jargon.

Why did a patient become a client? I’m not exactly sure. There are a couple of possible reasons floating around. It started being used at a time then medicine was adopting a business model for medical practice, and client is a common business term, so maybe, that’s it. Others think that it was adopted to provide people seeing a physician a greater  sense of autonomy—’patient’ connotes suffering and need—a ‘client’ is someone paying for a service, so it provides a greater sense of equality between the person providing care and the person receiving it. So maybe that’s it.

But it isn’t a term used only by researchers and doesn’t only refer to nursing home residents as the writer implies. It is used all across medicine by all sorts of providers.

[NOTE: And when and why did physicians and other health care workers become providers? And is there controversy over that?

And I love that the writer explained parenthetically that ‘aged-care’ is nursing home jargon for ‘nursing home.’ Oh, the linguistic web we weave…]

So what do I think of the use of client’ or ‘clientele’ in the medical field? I’ll tell you this: When I first heard the word in this context many, many years ago, I do remember thinking that it was stupid. But overtime, I’ve become used to it and I’ve adjusted.  Language evolves. I wouldn’t use the term, myself, but I wouldn’t castigate someone who did use it.

And there are actually some medical fields where it makes sense. In plastic surgery, there is a very fine line between client and patient, and many psychologists make a distinction between clients they see in their private practice and patients they see in the hospital. All that makes sense to me.

Still, when I go see my doctor, I think of myself as a patient, not a client, and I don’t always perceive the relationship between physician and patient as being equal.

As I mentioned, language evolves. When I first started doing health services research many, many years ago, people in our studies were called ‘subjects,’ but now, our IRBs are insisting on considering them ‘study participants’—that is, willing players rather than people who are having things done to them.

The bottom line is this: if the change comes from a good place like encouraging empowerment, why not?



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