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Should I Use Patient or Client in My Psychology Practice?

When working in the mental health field, you may have noticed that there are some professionals who use the term “patient” while others use the term “client” when referring to the individuals that they work with. When it comes to using patient vs. client, some professionals believe that it does not matter which word you choose to use, while others see importance in being deliberate about the words we use.

This topic can lead to a lively discussion among professions. In a situation such as this, being open minded to others perspectives and experiences can help us gain a better understanding of the situation which can help us make an informed decision. If you have a preference for using the term patient or client, I encourage you to consider the other perspective to see both sides of the coin. In this post, I discuss patient vs client in the mental health field.



Understanding the Difference Between Patient vs Client

To help us understand a little bit of history, we know that the word “patient” is rooted in Latin, specifically the verb “pati” which translates into “suffering.” When we think about health professionals, such as doctors and physicians, it would make sense for them to use this because they are trained to treat our symptoms and illness when we are not well. We have annual appointments to check in about possible health concerns and discuss our health and wellness where they can provide us with suggestions about behavior changes or medication changes that can improve our health.

Mental Health Professionals have felt as though this way of thinking did not jive well with the work they provide. A Mental Health Counselor is not going to treat your mental health condition in the same sense that your doctor may treat a medical condition. As an example, someone who has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes will likely be treated with insulin and fitted with a pump to monitor their symptoms. This demonstrates the standard medical practice for a health concern. When someone is diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, there are a variety of effective therapeutic approaches that the client could benefit from, along with other lifestyle changes. The mental health professional should work with the client to determine the best approach to their treatment based on their history and treatment goals.

Counselors tend to view their work with clients as more of a partnership. Clients are viewed as the experts of their life, and we can work with them to introduce tools that can help them understand and cope with challenges they are experiencing so that they can live their best life. Because of this, mental health professionals began to use the term client when referring to the individuals that they work with. This transition began around the 1970’s and has been a topic of discussion within the field since.

On the flip side, some feel that using the word “client” may feel like more of a business arrangement than a therapeutic relationship. Additionally, others feel that using the word client does not accurately reflect the work that you do in your work. Whereas using the word patient infers that the client is struggling in one aspect of their life. 

Who Uses “Patients” in Mental Health?

Using the word patient or client is something mental health professionals should take time to think about. Within my clinical experience, I have seen the term patient used less frequently than the term client. Professionals who I have seen use the term patient when referring to the individuals they work with were those with a medical background including Psychiatrists, Addiction Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, and Nurses, and others who worked in an inpatient treatment program. The scope of work included in these professional’s work duties align with the term patient as they are often providing medical care in addition to mental health care.

Mental Health Professionals who work in an inpatient setting, such as an addiction treatment program or psychiatric unit, may elect to use the term patient over the term client due to the setting that they are working in. Individuals who are in an inpatient treatment program have experienced a certain level of distress or disturbance to their life which warrants the need for a higher level of care. This can include the use of medical interventions such as medications to help with mental health concerns. While individuals who are engaging in outpatient treatment options tend to not have the same impact from their mental health concerns on their day to day lives.

Who Uses “Clients” in Mental Health?

You may find yourself wondering, do Psychologists have patients or clients in their work? Again, this will depend on several factors. Psychologists do not prescribe medication to the individuals they work with, despite being knowledgeable about medication options for various mental health concerns. Contributing factors will include their work setting, training, experience, and personal preference.

Do therapists have patients or clients? Similarly, to Psychologists, this will depend on a variety of factors. While therapists are in school and training, they are often exposed to the term client over the term patient. As a result, many therapists elect to continue using this rhetoric throughout their clinical practice. 



Why Did Mental Health Transition to Client Over Patient?

The effect of using patient vs. client can be described as the meat and potatoes of this professional debate. To become a mental health professional, you likely have a rooted interest in helping others. Other factors may influence our career paths; however, this is a common thread found among most of us.

A question I would ask you is, how do you feel your use of the word patient or client impacts the individuals you work with? You may have a mixed bag of reactions ranging from some not caring either way, to others who have a strong preference how you refer to them.

For clients who do have a preference, understanding their perception of the word can help you better grasp the importance of the terms used to them. Let us look at a hypothetical example.

You are working with an individual who has a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder with a history of 1 suicide attempts. The individual was hospitalized after their suicide attempt several years prior, and has made significant progress in their ability to manage their depressive symptoms. This individual has discussed their preference of being referred to as a “client” because they feel as though this reflects the progress they have made since they were a “patient” in a psychiatric hospitalization program.

In a situation such as that, I presume that the mental health professional would respect the clients wishes.

Additionally, using the term client or patient can inadvertently communicate how you view your role as a mental health professional. By using the term client within your clinical work, you can sublimely be communicating that you work with your client to achieve their goals.  

Some mental health professionals worry that using the term patient can contribute to a power shift within the relationship that can hinder your therapeutic rapport. Additionally, it could lead to some misconceptions about what someone can expect from therapy. If we return to the example of an individual with a Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis, while they may have some options for their treatment, is a different kind of treatment options than someone can experience when they begin working with a mental health professional

Final Thoughts on Using Patient vs Client in My Practice

When I reflect on my clinical experiences, I have gravitated towards the term client instead of patient. This began with my education, internships, and work experiences after earning my degree. With that being said, I can appreciate the use of the term patient by other professionals and understand their point of view when it comes to this debate. While working in an inpatient addiction treatment facility, I did notice that the professionals with a medical background tended to gravitate towards the term patient, while behavioral health professionals were using the term client, more often than not.  

I feel that the focus should be on the individuals that we work with, and how they could be impacted. We are mindful of how clients are impacted by the environment and do what we can to help them feel comfortable when they come to see us. So, it makes sense that the words we use to describe our work with them could have an impact as well. Even if they do not hear us using these terms, some argue that subliminally it can impact how we view our role as a mental health provider.  

With that being said, I do feel that it is important for us to listen and appreciate the opinions of other health providers that we work with. We have learned that best practices evolve overtime with what we learn from new research. The patient vs client debate could very well be something that research investigates to provide us with the answer of what would be best in the future. The most important thing is that we as mental health professionals can provide the quality care that we do, to help the millions of individuals with mental health and wellness concerns.



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Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC
Author: Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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