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Why Doctors See Patients and not Consumers

Written by Dr. Linda Girgis

Patients currently pay more out-of-pocket expenses than ever. Many foot their own health insurance premiums and pay higher deductibles. That means most patients are looking for ways to cut their costs, and shop for healthcare the same way as any other good or service. The media reports that this trend has turned patients into empowered consumers.

But most doctors do not see the consumer in the patient. Instead, we focus on the person.

Healthcare is more than just another service.

While it is certainly true that patients, like consumers, receive services for their own needs, the doctor-patient relationship is not the same as a seller-buyer relationship.  Getting an oil change for your car is a service. Shopping for a dryer is another.

But, the doctor patient relationship is established on a deep foundation of trust. Most doctors are not in the business of selling a service like a used car salesman trying to maximize his profit.  We’re trying to cure diseases and help patients make healthy life decisions.  Because of that, this relationship requires an incredible amount of trust going in both directions.  I don’t necessarily need to put my confidence in the Walmart corporation when I purchase a coffee maker there. And I doubt Target trusts that no consumers will ever walk out their doors with an iPad hidden under their jackets.

Doctors don’t see patients as consumers, but rather people who have entrusted us with their health and their lives. When a patient is in front of us, we’re not analyzing the services we could provide to maximize profits.  We look at tests as a means of diagnosing diseases.  True, some outlier doctors exist, but the majority of doctors put the best interests of their patients first.  When we take the focus off the person, things are overlooked.  And when patients don’t want the services we are offering, we have to respect these wishes as physicians, rather pushing a product like salespeople.

I truly hope that my own patients do not see me just as a provider of services, a seller to purchase healthcare from. I think this perspective would lessen the powerful doctor-patient bond I’ve formed with many of my patients. If a patient feels their doctors are driven only by profit, we lose their trust and their ear; they’re unlikely to listen to our best advice. Patients need to see their doctor as an ally, a partner working to maximize their health potential.

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Empowered consumers do not equal empowered patients.

All doctors want to empower their patients. That goes without being said. But what many in and outside the healthcare industry don’t understand is that classifying patients as consumers is not going to achieve this. It’s even counterproductive.

To be a truly empowered patient, the patient needs to demand the best healthcare from the people making healthcare decisions on their behalf, whether that’s a doctor or an insurance company. They need to take the reins in their own healthcare and know their diseases and medications in-and-out.  Decision-making becomes a two-way street between doctor and patient.  Additionally, the empowered patient  will even step up and drive healthcare policy.

Now consider what happens when patients are instead labeled consumers; the title  lessens them in the system. Instead of drivers of change, they are merely purchasers of services.

But, as patients, they have more rights and more power. Decisions made in the system can affect their health and take away their very lives.

Many changes have occurred and I hear many patients complain about it. Yet, nothing will change unless patients make their opinions felt.

It is essential to return the person in the patient back to the forefront. The healthcare team should be working for that person. The doctor patient relationship is of utmost importance. Do we want to shop for our health as empowered consumers or do we want to be teammates with the goal of healthy lives?

Published: April 6, 2015