As many doctors are feeling overworked with the demands of running a practice, the focus on building long-term patient relationships is often, unfortunately, sidelined. But just like any industry where customers have the option to choose, patients usually have more than one doctor they can see. Because of this, establishing solid relationships with patients is important for any medical provider.
We took a deeper look into these long-term doctor-patient relationships to better understand their benefits, challenges and what it takes to make them work. Here are a few key learnings…
1. Long-term doctor-patient relationships are longer than most.
It’s not uncommon for people to maintain long-term relationships with various professionals, such as hair stylists, personal trainers and baristas, but the average lengths of these relationships actually ranges quite a bit. When looking at doctor-patient relationships, our recent Match Made in Medicine study revealed that 82% of people have had an ongoing relationship with their doctor, and among those, the average relationship lasted s more than nine years. This was second only to the average long-term relationship with a significant other (18.3 years).
According to Michele C. Reed, a family practitioner at MS Family Healthcare, the fact that relationships with doctors and significant others average the longest doesn’t come as a surprise. She even compares the doctor-patient relationship to a marriage.
“Honesty is key, just like between a married couple, ” she said. “If you have an argument with your spouse or something stressed you out at work, and you come into my office and your blood pressure is high, it’s important that I know those details. That conversation comes from years of trust.”
2. Time fosters openness and trust.
The relationship between a doctor and patient is arguably one of the most personal a person can have in their life, with its nature requiring discussing intimate, embarrassing or taboo topics. Particularly with these types of conversations, time leads to openness.
The same study found that more patients feel comfortable discussing mental health (72% vs. 41%), embarrassing symptoms (70% vs. 40%) and family history (74% vs. 49%) with a long-term doctor, compared to one they just started seeing.
Donald Rebhun, MD, Corporate Medical Director of HealthCare Partners, noted that a long-term relationship between doctors and patients fosters a feeling of mutual trust, where both are sharing and speaking frankly. “Everyone gets scared when they are faced with a health issue, even doctors themselves. Making sure there is a two-way dialogue and that both the patient and doctor are being heard and understood is important,” he said.
Not only are patients more open with doctors they’ve been seeing long-term, but they’re more trusting as well. Our study found that four out of five people are likelier to take advice from a doctor they know than one they just met.
“My patients are more likely to take advice from me because whatever I am telling them to do, they know I am doing it myself. Our conversations are more than just making small talk,” Dr. Reed said. “Patients trust doctors they know and have built up a relationship with; it’s like having a friend in the exam room.”
3. Patients think maintaining this relationship is hard, but doctors can make it easier.
Although a long-term relationship is beneficial for both parties involved, the study revealed that Americans find maintaining a medical relationship with a doctor is challenging. In fact, 41% of respondents felt it was more difficult to maintain a long-term relationship with one doctor than with one romantic partner.
The good news is, there are things doctors can do to help make this easier. Even when schedules are full and visits are short, doctors should do their best to give their patients undivided attention, listen closely to their concerns, express empathy, answer questions and provide clear and understandable recommendations. This should all make the visit worthwhile in the eyes of the patient, which is what they value most.
Bruce Ruben MD, Medical Director and Founder of Encompass HealthCare and Wound Medicine, said doctors should emphasize the three A’s with their patients: availability, accessibility and affability.
“Make sure patient hours are accommodating and, when possible, make time available for urgent visits and weekend hours,” he said. “Remember that quickly returning phone calls and email messages shows patients their doctors care. And always be polite, kind and empathetic to patients.”
4. History provides context for better care
Allison Larson, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology, Boston Medical Center, builds her relationships with patients by asking about their work, family and hobbies.
“Not only does this help me get to know someone, but these details are important when deciding a treatment plan,” she said. “For example, I treat plantar warts differently for an athlete who is in competition season. For patients with precancerous growths, removal with liquid nitrogen leaves an obvious pink spot for a week, so I would time that around any important public appearances.”
Long-term doctor-patient relationships also allow doctors to better understand their patients’ current medical conditions and help more accurately diagnose new ones. A patient’s medical history is essentially a long story with new chapters added at every turn in life. It is much easier for a doctor to add to a story they already know, rather than starting from page one.
“The establishment of a long-term relationship with a patient allows the doctor to better understand the overall goals of the patient,” said Maurie Markman, MD, President of Medicine and Science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “For example, certain cancer treatments might be associated with side effects that would be of particularly concerning for an individual, such as even mild numbness or tingling in the fingers of an individual who plays a musical instrument. This symptom may not be as troublesome for another patient.”
5. Going the extra mile makes all the difference
While doctors regularly follow up with their patients on items like lab results and other testing, following up at times when it’s not required can truly strengthen a relationship.
Jennifer Caudle, DO, Family Physician, Assistant Professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, adds, “This might be when we know the patient is going through a hard time (lost a loved one, been in the hospital, etc.), or simply might appreciate a quick call to see how that medication is working,” she said. “Sometimes, reaching out to patients in times of need goes a long way in establishing a long-term relationship with a patient.”
Caudle adds that fostering long-term relationships with patients is one of the best parts of practicing medicine for her. “As a family doctor, I have known most of my patients for years—I know their health history, but I also know personal details such as when their first grandchild was born, when they got a new job or bought a new house,” she said.
Although a successful long-term doctor-patient relationship can be challenging and complex to maintain, it’s a rewarding one for both parties to have. Characteristics that come from these long-term relationships, like openness and trust, are critical for doctors to be able to give the best care to patients and ultimately a better healthcare experience for all.