The Doctor–Patient Relationship, Defined by Language

The Doctor–Patient Relationship, as Defined by Language by Henry Buchwald, MD, PhD – Sep 2019

A lexicon or thesaurus of ambiguous, euphemistic language is probably required to understand the Orwellian (George Orwell, born Erick Arthur Blair; author of “1984,” published 1949) “Newspeak” that is engulfing our profession.

The administocracy (see below) of health care has introduced many new terms into our medical vocabulary, and as Orwell fully appreciated, words are transformative precursors of reality.

You’re not in pain, you’re just “experiencing discomfort”.

Newspeak Lexicon for Medicine

Administocracy (noun).

A term introduced by Henry Buchwald in 1998 (Surgery 1998;124:595), the administration of an institution that believes itself to be in a sanctified position of top-down control, following a chain-of-command structure.


Administocracy controls opportunities, physical resources, and above all, income.

It has the ability to hire and to fire, and therefore possesses ultimate power.

The earners of income in a medical facility are the recipients of the residue of the earnings after the administocracy has been fully compensated, monies spent on corporate perks, as well as on executive search agencies to identify additional individuals to add to their number

To perpetuate this system, one medical school has created a special three-year curriculum to develop “physician leaders.” Benjamin Ginsberg, of the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, has termed this system “imperialism” (“The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters,” Oxford University Press, 2011).

Firm (noun).

A business organization that sells goods or services to make a profit.


Introduced into medical Newspeak in the latter part of the 20th century to proclaim that medical care is offered in a business-like manner at a minimal cost to the firm for maximum profit.

The primary goal of using this term is to instill in health care providers the concept that health care is a business conducted for profit, like any other business, and that they are the provider part of this business.

This orientation dictates that the money-making human resources (formerly, the doctors) should have their time allocated for maximum utilization in tending to the needs of the firm’s clients (formerly, the patients); that equipment, supplies and drugs will be purchased from the lowest bidder; and that staffing and facilities will be streamlined without any waste of assets.

Staff (noun).

A group of people that works for an organization or business.


In medical Newspeak, the staff and specialty units within a staff, work for the firm under the authority of a management administocracy within a business model of operation.

…the members of a health care team have equal authority in making a life-and-death decision for a client (formerly, the patient), for example, in a surgical care conference involving a critically ill client. The surgeon has a vote equal to that of

  • the intensivist,
  • the ICU nurse(s),
  • other unit personnel,
  • the chaplain, and
  • a bioethics faculty person who first saw the client that day

However, in the ordinary daily functioning of a team, decisions are usually made by providers (formerly, doctors), because other members’ time in the system is most useful when it is spent making money for the team, and first and foremost, to support an ever-increasing administocracy.

Client (noun).

A person using the services of a “professional person” or company. In medical Newspeak, the word means a person once called a patient using the services of a professional health care firm.


In order to follow a business model, the “Brave New World” (a novel by Aldous Huxley, published 1932) of medicine eliminates the moral challenge of caring for the tribulations of a fellow human’s pathology of body or mind, pain, incapacitation, faith and hope, and instead substitutes the concept that a client has contracted a firm for a service for which a fee will be required.

When the client accepts those conditions to obtain medical care, the client accepts seeing a provider (formerly, a doctor) at the scheduling decisions of the firm. The client relinquishes the privilege of selecting a particular provider to being serviced by a team, a team with interchangeable personnel, whose rotation is decreed by the team’s flowchart.

To give two examples: A client undergoing surgery should consider the possibility of a change of surgeons during an operative procedure. Obstetrics clients should consider the possibility of a change of obstetrician during a delivery. These conditions exist today and are becoming more widespread.

Provider (noun).

A supplier of services.


In health care Newspeak, “provider” began to be substituted for doctor in the late 20th century.

This alteration is consistent with the business model of health care and clearly establishes the relationship of the provider to the client (i.e., the provider is the individual in a firm who supplies a service, in this case, the service of managing a health problem).

From the perspective of the health care administocracy, this definition removes the aura of the physician as a highly trained professional of independent stature. The term is a denial of physician individuality with the substitution of physician anonymity. The provider becomes any member of a service cadre.

Employee (noun).

A person employed to work for wages or salary, especially at a non-executive level.


The transition from doctor to provider was, as stated, achieved in the latter part of the 20th century; the transition from provider to employee was accomplished in the early 21st century

Except for some urban institutions and rural practices, all providers (formerly, doctors) have become employees.

As employees, they receive a salary, allowances, family health care and retirement benefits from their employer institution, which relieves them of the responsibility for the time commitment and problems associated with billing and managing facilities

Their clients are assigned by the firm. The obligation for the subsequent care of the clients is a function of the firm.

If employees do not practice according to the policies of the firm, they can be severely admonished.

Physicians can be told 

  • what drugs to use;
  • how long a client should be hospitalized;
  • whether or not a client should be admitted to the hospital; and
  • the appropriate uses of common appliances (e.g., Foley catheters).

As stated, they may be subject to being substituted for during a procedure. Finally, the procedures that physicians are allowed to perform are prescribed; certain practices of care for their clients may not be allowed.

This is exactly what’s happening with opioid prescribing for pain relief, even if that is the only accessible, affordable, and above all, effective treatment.

The former doctor has become hired help.

This sentence really sums up how healthcare is reshaping itself to support profit-seeking businesses instead of social services.


Within an extremely short period of time, the doctor-patient relationship of the past several centuries, dating back to the time of Hippocrates (460-370 bc), with all that this relationship meant to both parties, has been reengineered.

In fact, it has been destroyed.

When we were still doctors (prior to becoming providers or employees) and we referred to our patients (now clients) as “my patient,” this declaration was not a prideful boasting of ownership; rather, doctors were making a statement about assuming responsibility for another individual’s welfare.

Doctors took ownership of patient care. And when a patient spoke of his or her “doctor,” the patient was expressing trust in an individual, in fact, often entrusting their very lives to the care provided by that person. The terms “my patient” and “my doctor” represented a personal relationship not consonant with a staff team of providers within a firm.


I believe that we, as doctors, engage in a profession that performs a humane service, not simply one that delivers a commodity.

This concept is the essence of who we are and what we do.

Author: Dr. Buchwald is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering, and the Owen H. & Sarah Davidson Wangensteen Chair in Experimental Surgery (emeritus), at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.

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