The words we use when talking about patients somehow differ from those we use when discussing everyday matters or opinions. I’m not sure why. Is it that part of this is stripping away the person so that we are left with a disease, a pathology that is somehow depersonalized and easier for us to deal with?
I recently heard a colleague describing the view that using the term ‘asthmatic’ to discuss someone who has asthma is perhaps adopting this approach. Person with asthma versus asthmatic – in the latter term, it is almost as if the person’s entire being is subsumed by their disease, as far as healthcare, they are the disease – who they are, their likes, dislikes and preferences are not considered relevant or reflected at the same level.
We see this no more so than in dementia. There has been a steady growth in the numbers of people living with dementia. Still, on TV and in the media we more often than not hear about ‘dementia sufferers’ – and within healthcare it is still the norm to talk about someone who has dementia as a ‘dementia patient’ rather than, a ‘patient with dementia’ or even, ‘a person with dementia’
Why is it that we so readily accede to this terminology? Why are we (and here, I am not sure who ‘we’ are) so attracted to this pigeonholing of people? Perhaps it makes it easier, it allows us to distance ourselves from the person; and yet, we talk of compassion – this, from the Latin, suffering with another, sort of implies that without suffering we can’t be with another. Maybe better words are caring, tending, appreciating, valuing.
And it is compassion that I feel connects strongly with my desire to rid the world of patients, again another word that has its origins in the Latin ‘suffering’ – people not patients. Why is it that I so naturally approach some people as patients, others as people? What is it that makes an individual privy to this position? Can I only investigate, diagnose and treat a patient? Is it somehow more challenging if that patient is primarily a person?
These are lots of questions about naming and identifying. I know that I often describe people as patients, those living with dementia or asthma or diabetes or bronchitis. Even though, the person was a person before they developed any of these conditions.
As Jon Kabat Zinn says, if you are still breathing, there is more right than there is wrong with you.
How often we forget this and focus on that which seems to demand our attention. How easy it is to run down that path and end-up with medicalisation and the narrow view of individuals that we see repeated day after day in hospitals and clinics across the country.
So, I say, ‘people not patients.’