Many clinical studies measure patient satisfaction with the outcome of a surgical procedure or other treatment intervention. Typically, 5-point Likert scales are used, ranging from very satisfied to satisfied, neutral (neither satisfied nor dissatisfied), and dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

Or should it be unsatisfied? What’s the difference? And when should one use dissatisfied versus unsatisfied? While both terms indicate a lack of satisfaction, the prefix makes an important difference. Each term has clear cases when it should be used.



The term dissatisfied is an adjective used to describe when someone is unhappy, displeased, frustrated, annoyed, or disappointed with a thing, person, or situation. It describes a feeling and often implies that the quality of something is poor. The person is clearly bothered by their lack of satisfaction:

Helen was dissatisfied with the keynote speaker’s response to her question.

Peggy was dissatisfied with the size of the dessert. (I.e., she was disappointed.)

Robert had long felt dissatisfied with his paint colour choice.

Striking high school teachers were dissatisfied with the government’s policy to increase class sizes.


The term unsatisfied simply means to be less than fully satisfied or content, to be generally unhappy. It is a sense of incompleteness and often implies that a greater amount of something is needed. The prefix “un-” negates the adjective “satisfied” – unsatisfied means “not satisfied” or “not fulfilled,” as in having unfulfilled or unmet obligations or expectations. A contract can only be unsatisfied.

Timothy was notified that he had unsatisfied course requirements for his undergraduate degree.

Peggy enjoyed the chocolate cake, but she (or her appetite) was unsatisfied because the piece was small. 

Greg liked his job, but it left him unsatisfied creatively.

Thus, the difference between unsatisfied and dissatisfied is one of degree. One could potentially be unsatisfied with something, but not be dissatisfied (actively annoyed) with the same thing:

If you owe a large sum on a credit card, your debts are unsatisfied, but your creditors are dissatisfied.

Related Terms

The noun dissatisfaction refers to a lack of satisfaction, a disappointment or discontent stemming from something falling short of one’s expectations. Note that there is no such term as “unsatisfaction.”

The term unsatisfying means something fails to satisfy, which is linked to feeling “unsatisfied.”

The term unsatisfactory means something is inadequate, substandard, or not satisfactory, which has little or nothing to do with how someone or something feels.

The term dissatisfactory has a slightly different meaning, indicating that something is causing dissatisfaction.


So when you’re asking patients how they feel about the outcome of their surgery or treatment, you want to use the term dissatisfied, as you’re measuring their displeasure or disappointment, most likely on a scale. When writing up the accompanying manuscript reporting the results of the study, the correct terms are satisfaction and dissatisfaction, as it refers to the patient’s feelings if the outcome of the procedure fell short of the patient’s expectations.

I hope these explanations have clarified and simplified the correct usage of these terms. If you have any further questions, or know a handy little tip to keep the terms straight, leave a comment in the space below. I also welcome suggestions for future #WeeklyWritingTips.