Providers or Healthcare Professionals? Language Matters
In 1965, Medicare adopted the term “provider” to designate entities qualifying for Medicare reimbursement. Over the decades, provider came to include hospitals, clinics, and third-party payors, particularly those in primary care. However, use of the term provider does not capture the professional, therapeutic, nor personal relationships that healthcare professionals have with their patients as patients, as opposed to consumers. Billing as a provider and treating patients as a provider are distinct functions.
It has been posited that using the term ‘provider’ to refer to healthcare professionals has the unforeseen consequences of demoralizing them and creating mistrust among patients. ‘Provider’ does not identify who is giving care and what their responsibilities are. For example, a patient may be seen by a team of professionals including a doctor, nurse, genetic counselor, social worker, pharmacist, and therapist. Each team member has a definitive role with a defined set of responsibilities. Calling everyone a provider blurs the lines and may leave patients with the uncertainty as to whom they should be asking questions. Using professional titles and helping patients understand what these titles represent can make a world of difference and help provide much needed clarity within overly complex healthcare systems.
Although a nurse in an integral part of the care team and may talk to a patient about short-term and long-term care facilities, it is a social worker who will make the necessary arrangements for transfer and further care. A genetic counselor does not arrange for home oxygen therapy but will arrange for genetic testing. Likewise, physicians do not provide a commoditized service. Rather, they are licensed, highly skilled professionals, trained to deliver and guide primary and specialized medical diagnoses and treatment. A recent Viewpoint paper in JAMA (see ‘Learn More – Primary Sources’ below) makes the point that language matters when it concerns people feeling respected. Using precise terms for both professionals and patients benefits the entire healthcare system.
The personalized, important nature of health care depends on trust and professionalism, with the expectation that clinicians will place the needs of those they serve ahead of their own and those of their organizations. When used to designate those who care for patients, provider has the potential to suggest that patients are mere consumers, serviced without commitment to professionalism.
Some may argue that replacing the term provider is a frivolous exercise, given the many other pressing issues for health care. Yet, the demonstrated personal and career sacrifices of and renewed appreciation for health care professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to correct the language used to refer to them.
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