‘Patient’ Vs. ‘Client’: How Semantics Influences the Practice of Psychiatry


Psychiatrists should be able to work with our medical colleagues to convey the idea that psychiatric medications are treatments, not shackles. And we can help our psychotherapeutic colleagues to understand that while medications are not always necessary, they can often be an important component of a person’s wellness and recovery. Mental health physicians —psychiatrists — are in the best position to effectively make cases such as these to each group, and we should not shy away from embracing this task.

As we are now on the threshold of exciting new advancements in research and neuroscience, every day coming closer to finding genetic and organic causes of diseases like schizophrenia, psychiatrists will become ever more valuable as the clinicians who can best bridge the gaps between science and spirituality, between psychology and pharmacology, between diagnosis and understanding.

We should relish our particular, distinctive roles and ability to bring body and mind together, and through this, reduce stigma, tear down barriers, and improve access. If semantics are to be an issue, let’s worry more about helping people to get appropriate treatments instead of “chemicals,” rather than getting bogged down about which name is most correct these days.

But if we must address the dilemma of what to call individuals under our care, there is a relatively easy solution, one that fits in with a general approach psychiatrists have already been doing for quite some time. And that is, there’s no reason to have to choose.

Simply use the term that the person whom you are addressing with is most comfortable with. You might discuss a “client” with a therapist, speak about a “consumer” with a mental health board, and still be able to refer a “patient” to another physician.

Simple, right? And if all else fails, you can always try referring to people by their names.

Scott Zeller, MD, is Chief of Psychiatric Emergency Services at Alameda Health System in Oakland, California, and past president of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry. He is also a member of the Psychiatry Advisor editorial board.


  1. Pies RW. Why Doctors Don’t Have Clients. Psychiatric Times. April 22, 2015. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blogs/couch-crisis/why-doctors-dont-have-clients. Accessed June 6, 2015.