Thursday, 23 October 2008

Health Consumer or Patient?

I've seen it mentioned a few times recently that the term 'health consumer' is not a good one, and that the word 'patient' is better.

Living in the UK, I had actually never heard of the term 'health consumer' until a few years ago when David Rothman suggested that I might want to consider separating MedWorm information into 'consumer health information' and 'professional information'.

I found this 'health consumer' term really quite bizarre, that a patient should be looked upon in such a manner, as some kind of business entity, yet as I came to learn more about the American health system, I understood why.

Over My Med Body! asks us to stop calling patients consumers. Nancy Turret at Edelman's Health Engagement Blog suggests that 'consumer implies consumption'.

For me, the word consumer is related to the word customer and makes me think money. The 'health consumer' buys healthcare, and the healthcare industry is ultimately focused on how to get consumers to buy their products, not how to cure the patient, or as Nancy also highlights, not how to keep the individual healthy.

In the UK the focus is different. The NHS is very much focused on cure, and the government also focusing increasingly on prevention. The words patient and individual come naturally, the term 'health consumer' is strange and uncomfortable.

I am much happier talking about patients and individuals, rather than consumers. However, I hate to say that I see the American 'health consumer' actually becoming even more of a commodity as people are almost encouraged, and often obliged (through inadequate health insurance) to cut out the middle man (the family practitioner for example), to research their own condition and make a self-diagnosis and then purchase their drugs and treatments directly, all online.

I don't imagine that the Internet and Health 2.0 is going to solve the current health care predicament in the US - it will bring about advantages, but at the same time will likely give rise to a new set of problems, and I think the term 'health consumer' will become increasingly appropriate. Of course, you could always drop the term and pretend that patients are not actually consumers, if it makes you feel better, as I think I might.


  1. To me, not every consumer of health information is a patient.

  2. Well pointed out David. That brings me back to Nancy's posting where she suggests that we actually call people exactly that, 'people'. I think in the UK we would refer to non-patient health consumers simply as 'the public'.

  3. And, from the point of view of the big pharma, is better 'health consumer'. Why not to embrace 'citizens' as the critical concept, not only 'public'?