The Intake

Insights for those starting, managing, and growing independent healthcare practices

The doctor-patient relationship: 8 ways to improve patient retention

Learn 7 key strategies you can use in your practice to build a strong doctor-patient relationship — and keep patients coming back.

Physician interacts with patient during appointment, building a strong doctor-patient relationship

At a Glance

  • Strong doctor-patient relationships are crucial for patient retention and lead to better health outcomes.
  • Active listening, empathy, compassion, transparent billing, and efficient scheduling are key strategies for building trust and fostering patient satisfaction.
  • Providers should make the most of time spent with patients through personalized education, shared decision-making, and open-ended questions.
  • Long patient wait times can negatively impact the doctor-patient relationship. Practices should optimize scheduling, utilize appointment reminders, and prioritize urgent cases to reduce wait times.

As the old saying goes, "It takes two to tango." When it comes to the doctor-patient relationship, both parties have certain responsibilities that may well improve patient trust and lead to better patient outcomes.

The patient, for example, is responsible for being on time for appointments, being honest about their patient history, bringing up their key concerns, and making sure they understand medical advice and instructions.

However, it's fair to say that the lion's share of responsibility for the doctor-patient relationship lies with the person who has the greater knowledge, education, and experience and therefore occupies a position of power: the physician. And for many years, it was this power dynamic that characterized the doctor-patient relationship. In 1956, Szasz and Hollender identified this as the active-passive model, the physician acting upon the patient, who is treated as an inanimate object.

 No longer. In this era of patient-centric care, there's no denying that healthcare providers who bring empathy, open communication, active listening, and understanding into the examination room are more likely to retain existing patients and attract new patients.

What are some of the factors that enhance the doctor-patient relationship, and which can potentially damage it? More importantly, how can independent healthcare providers, particularly primary care providers, improve patient interactions, thereby cementing the doctor-patient relationship?

We’ll also explore 8 strategies that can help you foster a stronger doctor-patient relationship. These strategies are not only essential for relationship-building and patient retention but also can have a profound impact on patient outcomes.

Patient Perspectives Report

Why is the doctor-patient relationship important?

Tebra recently surveyed 1,000 patients and 100 healthcare providers, exploring the importance of the doctor-patient relationship. The results revealed that a whopping 87% of patients believed that a strong relationship with their doctor had a positive impact on their patient journey.

A whopping 87% of patients surveyed believed that a strong relationship with their doctor had a positive impact on their healthcare experience. ”

When vulnerability and uncertainty are in the mix, a good primary care doctor-patient relationship acts as a safety net for patients. Patients can better face difficult health challenges when their physician displays care, empathy, and emotional support.

The survey found what we always knew to be true: A strong doctor-patient relationship goes above and beyond competent patient care. Healthcare should never merely be a transaction but rather a partnership dedicated to health and well-being all along the patient journey.

Obstacles to a good doctor-patient relationship

A qualitative study published in 2022 identified several stumbling blocks to establishing a good doctor-patient relationship, and several were the responsibility of the patient population. For example, a patient may have unusual expectations of a physician, ignore their recommendations, or not be completely honest about their habits. The study also cited the influence media may have on creating unrealistic patient expectations.

Barriers to Doctor Patient relationships

Many patients in the study cited issues with their doctor or their doctor's administrative or medical staff. Here are a few common issues:

  • Time. A constant among physicians today is they feel they never have enough time with a patient to develop a significant relationship.
  • Patient scheduling. If the patient finds it cumbersome to reach the doctor's office, let alone make an appointment, the doctor-patient relationship is not off to a good start.
  • Cultural differences. Depending on their cultural backgrounds, physicians and their patients may have difficulty connecting and may make erroneous assumptions that lead to misunderstanding and damage patient trust.
  • Patient registration. A less-than-warm welcome by a receptionist at the start of patient visits or the perceived disinterest on the part of medical staff will negatively impact the doctor-patient relationship.
  • Doctor's attitude. This one covers a lot of ground, including inattention, displays of superiority, lack of listening and responding, and lack of empathy and understanding.

What are the consequences? Tebra found In a recent survey that it doesn’t take much for a patient to look elsewhere. Almost 50% of survey respondents said they’d give their providers only 2 chances before seeking a new one.

The good news is that you can take actions that have been shown to improve the doctor-patient relationship. And when you meet patients’ needs, you improve patient engagement and the overall success of your practice.  

Better doctor-patient relationships mean better patient outcomes

A good doctor-patient relationship and seamless patient experience have long been understood as foundational to high patient satisfaction scores and better patient loyalty. A 2020 study in the Annals of Family Medicine found that they also can mean better patient outcomes.

Why would this be so?

Having a good doctor-patient relationship means that the physician has worked to establish mutual understanding with a patient through open communication, mutual respect, and empathy. It means also that the physician has instilled in the patient confidence that their patient data and confidentiality are secure.

Patients who feel heard and valued are much more likely to divulge information needed for an accurate diagnosis. They’re also more willing to adhere to a treatment plan — and book follow-up appointments, which lead to better patient outcomes.This is perhaps why medical schools spend a lot of time helping their students develop the tools for successful doctor-patient relationships.

8 practices that build stronger doctor-patient relationships

A strong, healthy doctor-patient relationship can still encounter bumps in the road. A long wait for an appointment, missed diagnosis, or some other misstep by either the physician or patient could occur. However, neither party will be likely to let the occasional problem get in the way of a good thing — as long as it is clear you are working with the patient as a team for the benefit of their health.

What are the characteristics of a good doctor-patient relationship?

Tebra's healthcare provider survey, summarizing patient experience data, highlighted that healthcare providers who implemented these practices experienced a 15% increase in patient satisfaction and retention. That's particularly important for the primary care physician, through whom the patient accesses the rest of their healthcare world.

1. Active communication

Communication is not just about delivering information; it's about patient engagement. We know the behaviors around active communication:

  • Listening to patients with intent, without interruption 
  • Understanding the patient's perspectives
  • Responding in a way that validates their concerns and answers their questions

But effective doctor-patient communication goes deeper than that. A patient is more than a set of symptoms, and what's going on in their personal lives can have a direct impact on physical well-being. For example, a patient may have a loved one diagnosed with dementia. Actively soliciting patient information about personal situations may seem like a breach of professional boundaries, but it's a good way to establish trust and rapport. 

When you actively listen and probe for insights, you create a safe space for patients to express their thoughts, fostering trust in patient confidentiality and cooperation.

2. Empathy and compassion

Empathy and compassion are at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship. Clinical relationships should be, well, more than just clinical. 

Beyond the medical diagnosis, it's essential to acknowledge and address the emotional aspects of a patient's well-being. By showing genuine care and understanding, you not only provide medical care but also emotional support, creating a bond that transcends the merely clinical.

3. Informed consent

Many physicians believe that to foster a successful doctor-patient relationship, it's important that patients not feel judged.

This includes obtaining informed consent at each step of the examination and treatment, as well as respecting the patient's boundaries. Presenting all options and alternatives available to patients before treatment, emphasizing patient safety, and soliciting patient input in the decision-making is key to a stronger doctor-patient relationship.

4. Transparent billing

Transparent billing — making sure your billings are free of hidden costs — is critical to building trust with your patients. Patients often feel anxiety and frustration when it comes to healthcare costs. By providing clear, honest, and transparent billing information, you eliminate surprises and confusion. Patients appreciate knowing what to expect and will have greater confidence in your practice. It's also important to partner with a medical billing operation that you trust so your time isn't taken up with billing issues.

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5. Efficient patient intake and scheduling

Efficient scheduling and office procedures respect your patients' time. Offering online pre-registration forms and flexible appointment options, including online scheduling, same-day, and emergency appointments, allows patients to take control of their healthcare.

Minimizing wait times demonstrates that you understand their busy lives and that you prioritize their convenience. Of course, some things are out of your control. If you’re running late, keeping patients informed and thanking them for their patience can go a long way. The patient then knows that they will receive your full attention, and will generally overlook a scheduling issue.

6. Seamless patient experience

If the physician is employing these practices but the administrative and medical staff aren't, the outcome will still be the same: dissatisfied patients who go looking for a new doctor.

Make sure everyone in your office is trained in these practices and is using them in their patient interactions.

7. Digital touchpoints

Use patient portals, text messaging, and online scheduling to enhance patient outreach and patient access. Automation can be your friend here; many of these notifications can be scheduled in advance, reducing staff workload.

In addition, patients can use portals to check their patient records, saving phone calls. Another tool is a user-friendly digital kiosk, where patients can check in and scan their driver's license and insurance card.

These tools empower patients to reach out, schedule appointments, and access their patient records conveniently. It also signals that your practice is keeping pace with modern healthcare expectations. In this digital age, they expect nothing less.

8. Follow-up care

After patient visits, provide ongoing care and follow-up, especially for chronic conditions. Follow-up care demonstrates your commitment to patients' long-term well-being. This might involve chronic condition care, a phone call after surgery, or a post-visit survey, but the message is the same. Taking the initiative to follow up shows that you're invested in their patient journey. It provides reassurance and supports continuity of care, which is vital for patient retention and better patient outcomes.

You may not be able to implement all 8 of these practices right away. We suggest you keep them top-of-mind as your goals while you search for healthcare marketing, technology and consulting partners to help you grow your practice.

Patient-centered care and the doctor-patient relationship

Patient-centered care (or person-centered care) focuses on individual patients and their particular healthcare needs. Its goal is to encourage active patient involvement, collaboration and shared decision-making among patients, families, caregivers, patient representatives and doctors.

Clinicians are there to inform, advise and provide patient support, but it is ultimately up to individual patients to determine their course of action. Patient-centered care is associated with a higher rate of patient satisfaction, adherence to suggested lifestyle changes and prescribed treatments.

Patient-centered care requires a physician to employ the aforementioned communication skills, practice informed consent, act as a patient advocate, and strive to provide safe and effective care and treatments that meet patient needs.

As you can see, many of the characteristics of patient-centered care support the doctor-patient relationship as well. In fact, the 8 principles of patient-centered care highlighted in research conducted by the Picker Institute and Harvard Medical School echo many of the strategies for building doctor-patient relationships:

  • Respect for patients' preferences
  • Coordination and integration of care
  • Information and education
  • Physical comfort
  • Emotional support
  • Involvement of family and friends
  • Continuity and transition
  • Access to care

Patient-centered care is challenging because the current healthcare system isn't organized to support it very well. Still, you can use elements of it to strengthen your doctor-patient relationships with these simple strategies:

1. Personalized patient education

Allocate time to educate patients about their health conditions, treatment options, and preventive measures. Informing them of what other patients have done in similar situations can provide reassurance and reduce anxiety. It lets them know that their circumstances are not unusual. Informed patients are more likely to actively participate in their care.

2. Shared decision-making

Involve patients in the decision-making process. Discuss treatment options and potential risks and benefits. Consider their preferences and values — including work, family, and school responsibilities — when making healthcare decisions.

3. Active listening and open-ended questions

Active listening not only provides a better diagnosis but also demonstrates empathy and respect, key elements of patient-centered care. Open-ended questions allow for a more in-depth conversation and help providers gain a comprehensive understanding of the patient's condition.

Download the report

A good doctor-patient relationship + optimized patient experience = improved patient retention

What it all boils down to is that if you want to keep your patients, it’s essential to provide a personalized patient experience. By prioritizing the primary care doctor-patient relationship, you’re not only providing excellent care but also ensuring that your patients return for continued treatment, ultimately achieving the goal of patient retention.Learn how Tebra can help with our complete operating system dedicated to an exceptional patient experience.

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Jenn Green

Jenn Green has been using her BA in fine arts from York University in Toronto to publish articles on The Intake, Homebase, Master School, and Airalo. Jenn’s personal health challenge that required significant medical attention drives her passion for writing about healthcare-related topics. She believes ongoing education is critical to successful outcomes and to ensure providers offer the best patient care possible.

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