Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones’ 75-year-old lead singer, recently underwent a transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedure. A look at his Twitter feed shows a total of two tweets dedicated to this episode of care: First, he expressed his dismay at postponing the North American leg of his band’s tour and then, after a brief Twitter hiatus, he said that he’s feeling better and thanked the hospital staff. Do you think that the king of swagger wants to be considered a “patient” outside of this encounter? Not a chance.
At some point, the term patient became a staple in the medtech industry, but have we gone too far with its use? I suppose that I should be happy with the progress we’ve made as an industry: Fifteen years ago, we didn’t mention any stakeholders besides the clinician. Then we began to think about “non-clinical” stakeholders, a monolithic set of people whose main defining characteristic was that they weren’t doctors, such as payers. It wasn’t until about five years ago that we awakened to this new perplexing constituency called “the patient” and, of course, created a slew of patient marketing, patient research, patient engagement and outreach programs and materials in response. This seemed to be a reasonable approach because, after all, isn’t our business built on helping patients? Not so fast.
Initially, the idea of building empathy for the patient felt good: We walked in their shoes, felt their feelings and spoke in plain English (or French or German) about their diseases and the impact of our products on their bodies. We helped to explain what was wrong with them and detailed the ways that medical technologies could fix their ailing and failing bodies. It all seemed like forward progress: More surgeries meant more survivors, which in turn meant more revenue.
But I fear that using the word “patient” universally is causing the medtech industry a bit of trouble. You see, patients are sick. When we think of medtech patients, we think of people dressed in surgical gowns preparing for surgery, or in a recovery room being monitored by beeping machines and eating bland, soft food. Nobody wants to be a patient, and if they’re lucky, they don’t fit the definition for very long. Frankly, patients don’t really make many decisions. They aren’t making a selection from several possible surgical robots, considering the choices of different access methods or contemplating which fixation is best for them. If everything goes according to plan, they’re just patients for a few days and then spend the rest of their time not being patients. Does the patient terminology accurately represent the time spent outside of a healthcare encounter?
Maybe this sound like it’s just a matter of semantics, but I argue that using the word “patient” inherently confines us to a narrow set of language and interactions that undermine the strategies used to engage the general public. The label reduces interaction with medtech companies before a procedure and severs the relationship upon completion. The difference is especially stark when considering a chronic condition like diabetes, as very few people with diabetes want to be considered patients for the rest of their lives. If we treat them that way, we focus on outcomes, medical data and other clinical facts that do very little to help them live a long and fruitful life.
There’s an important development that makes this linguistical detail take on more urgency: the entrance of consumer tech companies into our industry. The Apple Watch isn’t designed to manage patients but instead to alert consumers to previously unseen conditions. Similarly, Bose hearing aids are likely to appeal to consumers whose hearing isn’t what it used to be, instead of patients struggling with hearing loss.
Now that Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa is HIPAA-compliant, guess what you don’t see on the developer website? The word “patient” (except two mentions in a direct quote from Boston Children’s Hospital). Read some other announcements from similar companies with grand ambitions in healthcare here and here. Where is the word “patient”? Gosh, they seemed to have even trained the media to use different language, when appropriate. Hmmm…
You see, patients are sick, but everyone else is in between episodes of care, and hopefully focusing on being as healthy as possible. What about Mick Jagger? He’s not sick; he’s just getting a little older. Medtech companies, if you want to engage with people, stop thinking about them as patients who need an intervention and start thinking about them as people who are managing their health and well-being.