On Drug Dealers, Doctors and Patients: The effect of a word on a relationship

In a number of states in America, there has been the legalisation of the sale of so called “Medical Marijuana” and as a result, large numbers of shops have sprung up in shopping centres selling marijuana openly to people who supposedly have a medical need for it.

Last week, I saw a documentary on the efforts of citizens in some of these towns to change the laws to prohibit these sales and to shut down the shops. The point that really struck me was the defense of the dealers/shop owners. They claimed that they were providing for a medical need, that they were not simply retailers and that their main interest was in serving the needs of their “Patients”. “What would happen to my patients if we had to shut down?” was their response. The word patient, and not client or customer, was used by every single dealer to explain why they should remain in business. They had the interests of their patients at heart.

In the West, the use of the word patient is increasingly discouraged and health systems encourage the word client.

Why is this?

The word Patient, implies and has a depth of meaning much more than client or customer. It implies that apart from the doctor or health system providing the medical service for a fee and the patient being protected by the existing health laws, the doctor or health system also have a duty of care to the person, much more than a simple transactional duty protected by consumer laws and rights. It implies that there is a relationship which also involves, care, concern, integrity, honesty and putting the patient’s best interest first. It also implies that these aspects of the relationship are not things that have been legislated for but are absolutely implicit in the relationship. When a person is a client or customer, none of these things need necessarily exist and often laws need to be enacted to ensure that they are present. (When was the last time you, as a customer or client, felt any of those words were appropriate when you bought a car or a TV?)

Drug dealers, as exemplars of free market capitalism, understand this and realise the value of appropriating the word Patient. They position themselves not simply as retailers but have appropriated the word most likely in the public’s mind to show that they have a duty of care to their “patients” with all its implicit meanings, and that they are not in it just for the money.

Now if a drug dealer can see the value and deep implicit meanings to the word patient, why is it that our policy makers run away from it and encourage the use of a word whose only value is transactional?

For more information on how we can work with you to incorporate Storytelling into your health practice, take a look at our Narrative Medicine Programme.

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