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Are We Patients or Consumers?

"[There is] no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well." 
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
"Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick." 
Susan Sontag, Illmess as Metaphor
Advocates of consumer-driven health care contend that patients are consumers of health care and that choice of insurance plan forms the basis of a successful health care model. In their seminal book Redefining Health Care, Porter and Teisberg argue that CDHC champions err by focusing on consumer choice rather than value-driven care as the primary economic driver of competition in health care.

The question of whether we are patients or consumers need not be considered in such binary fashion, writes George Annas in The Rights of Patients: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to Patient Rights. The word "patient," Annas says, " the best term to describe an individual who is sick or injured and in need of medical care." Annas recognized the paternal implications of the term and agrees that it requires refining.

However, he also finds "consumer" wanting, writing that it best applies to healthy people physically and psychologically able to contemplate a choice of plans or elective procedures. An important reason why there has never been a sustained, effective, widespread consumer movement in health care is the when we are sick or injured, our first priority is to become well, and we are willing to cede rights that we might otherwise take for granted in order to regain health.

Moreover, public attention lies elsewhere: Advances in medical technology that delay death and increase the curative power of modern health care, costs, access, patient rights, and matters as basic as adequate time with physicians.

In short, we are consumers when well, and patients when sick.

(Source: The Rights of Patients: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to Patient Rights, 3rd ed.)

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