In 1990, informal movements driven by consumers began in an effort to change the perceived problems in mental health services and to promote better communication between the provider and the patient.  A mental health “consumer” is considered a person who is undergoing treatment for a psychiatric disorder.   The term suggests that individuals have a choice in their treatment and that without them mental health providers would not exist.  Today, the word mental health consumer has expanded in the popular usage of consumers themselves to include anyone who has received mental health services in the past, anyone who has a behavioral health diagnosis, or simply anyone with a mental or behavioral disorder.

In some health care circles the movement to refer to patients as “consumers of healthcare” is being debated along with issues pertaining to “customer” service.  Some practitioners believe calling individuals “consumers” sends the message that we are “selling” them a product and that it’s an impersonal term.  And only a handful of residency programs incorporate customer service into their clinical training.  What are the implications to providers and patients?  In addition to clinical training, do we also need to learn customer service techniques?

Dr. Paul E. Keck, Jr.:

As defined by traditional terms, a patient is a person who is under medical care or treatment. And if we elaborate from a position of compassion and understanding we would add that this is someone suffering in some way and needs some form of help and HOPE. However, this should come in the form of a partnership, working together with patient and family to create improvements in quality of life, alleviate suffering and save lives.

When I think about what I do-what we do as providers of mental healthcare, I recognize that my position in this partnership is as a provider and my goal is to help patients achieve good health and lasting wellness. Do I consider them “consumers?” I think the better question here is, as a mental healthcare provider how am I delivering care? What is my customer’s perception and how is my expertise and clinical knowledge helping them achieve their goals? It’s critical to ask what patients are trying to achieve. What they are willing to contribute to achieve their goals and what can I do to support them as they work toward that outcome?

Customer service is one of the most important functions of the health care industry. We are witnessing an ever-changing healthcare environment, one in which the “customer” is better educated about their health and one in which they recognize they have many choices. Incorporating compassion, responsiveness and attention into the patient experience can set one apart from the many options available. The Journal of Healthcare Management reports that patients who receive good customer service report better health outcomes and higher levels of satisfaction with their overall healthcare.  I believe as we continue to meet the heavy demands and ever increasing needs of those seeking mental health services, we need to remember to deliver a customer service experience in line with one we would hope to receive as we visit our own healthcare provider.