patient or customer

What’s In a Name?

I recently had a discussion with another hearing care professional regarding a topic about which, heretofore, I had no conscious idea that I had an opinion, much less passion. For my entire career as a hearing professional I have referred to the people who came to me for care as “patients”. This was my training and has been the favored nomenclature in every venue I have served.  

The Merriam Webster definition of patient  (n. an individual awaiting or under medical care and treatment) does not specify the kind of professional providing the care, so I assume that is an open choice.  And hearing care certainly qualifies as medical care and treatment.  

The question arose whether those seeking our services should be designated patients or customers. There are certainly arguments for the latter and I will leave it up to the gentle reader to seek them out for themselves to decide whether they are compelling. What follows is my rationale for favoring the former. I am both a provider and consumer of health care, and it is from the perspective of a consumer that I write. How we, as professionals, designate the people we serve says more about us than it does about them. And it is the consumer view of how they are perceived that may affect whether or not they seek out our services.  


Customer vs. Patient


There is a fundamental difference in the relational expectations of a customer vs. a patient.  Yes, I have a few “long term” relationships with retail representatives – primarily for services.  I get my hair cut by the same person every time and I have a guy I always take my car to because I know he is going to do what needs to be done, no more and no less.  

In terms of retail purchases, there are stores that I go to regularly, and perhaps I even learn to recognize some people. (At my grocery store, Hal and I are on a first-name basis).  But these relationships are typically transitory and superficial.

In my healthcare, on the other hand, I seek out longer term relationships in which I want and expect my provider to get to know me. And sometimes, I them.

I recently was required to sever ties with my PCP of over 35 years (a ballroom dancer whose daughter is an audiologist).  I plan to stay with my new PCP for the duration. And the same goes for my cardiologist.

It looks like I will be seeing my hand orthopedist again soon.  No reason to change since he took pretty good care of me last time.  

My urologist is a jerk, so I avoid seeing him, though it is probably not wise for me to do so.  

This may be TMI, but you can see that I tend to expect long-term relationships with my health care providers (professionals to whom I am a patient).  With my retail providers (to whom I am a customer), not so much.


Customer vs. Patient: Different Types of Relationship


The word “patient” does not have a negative connotation to me.  But neither does “customer”.  The difference between the two is the depth of the relationship and the kinds of goals that are anticipated.  

I expect someone to whom I am a patient to be someone who knows me well and cares about my long-term well-being.  Someone to whom I am a customer I expect nothing of the sort, nor should I. From them I expect short-term gratification and a pleasant “Have a nice day”.  

A customer is involved in a transactional relationship with the sales associate where the end goal is acquisition of a commodity or service.  A patient is part of a relational relationship (it’s a thing) with their health care provider where the end goal is therapy and the ongoing well-being of the patient.  

Bottom line, I expect much less from someone to whom I am a customer than from someone to whom I am a patient.  

My father jokingly tells people, “I’m Norwegian, but I usually tell people I’m Swedish so they don’t expect so much from me.”  I want my patients to expect a lot from me.  

What follows is a (non-judgmental) comparison of how I believe patients and customers to see themselves.  It is certainly how I see myself in these two roles.

From the patient/customer’s point of view:

A Patient is: A Customer is:
Cared for  Sold to
By a   By a 
Professional  Sales-associate
Who holds a   With
A professional degree  No particular training
Who practices  Who practices
Professional standards of care  Whatever standards will   complete the sale
And  And
Counseling techniques  Sales Techniques
To  To
Provide services, therapies and devices that will improve their long-term well-being.    Sell  a commodity
Patients are nurtured and cared for and develop long-term relationships with their care providers. Customers are sold a product and, in most retail situations, perhaps never see their sales-associate again.



Paul U. Teie, MS, has been an audiologist since 1991.  He has spent much of his career in direct clinical care but has filled other roles in the hearing care industry as sales representative of a special instrument dealer and a hearing instrument manufacturer.  Since 2007 he has provided sales and clinical training for large hearing care networks and currently trains for HearUSA/HearCanada. 

About HHTM

HHTM's mission is to bridge the knowledge gaps in treating hearing loss by providing timely information and lively insights to anyone who cares about hearing loss. Our contributors and readers are drawn from many sectors of the hearing field, including practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, educators, and, importantly, consumers with hearing loss and those who love them.


  1. How about client:

    ” A person or organization using the services of a professional person or company”.

  2. A very good write up on the differences. I like to treat everybody as patients only because they learn a lot from me as a clinician, and so they take home an experience and understanding about their hearing loss and the future consequences.
    I had clients come in from Europe to seek hearing help from me (referred). They enjoyed the education I provided.
    In summing up: Hearing help is 80% psychology, and 20% technology.There is no audiology as a viable part of the process.

Comments are closed.