The Doctor-Patient Relationship: How It Impacts Your Health
Think back to the last time you walked into a new doctor’s office for the first time. Were you nervous or anxious? Perhaps you weren’t sure what to expect. Were you curious about this doctor’s bedside manner? Were you seeking a new physician based on his or her expertise? Maybe you just trying to find a better fit for your health needs and goals. After all, the doctor-patient relationship is key for your health treatment plan. And here’s why …
A doctor has many roles, and perhaps the most important one is as a teacher. Your doctor’s job isn’t to be “smarter” than somebody else or to be a “know-it-all.” Instead his or her job is to listen, educate, motivate, and help guide you to proper health decisions based on a deep understanding of how the body works. Finally, your doctor’s job is to look out for your best interest while making sure you understand the “why” behind what’s happening. This requires a solid doctor-patient relationship built on mutual respect and trust.
This relationship is so important, and it’s one you have control over because you have the power to choose your physician. So, let’s discuss how the doctor-patient relationship impacts your health decisions and treatment plan along with ways you can determine if your physician is the right “match” for you!
The Importance of the Doctor-Patient Relationship
During one of my final exams in medical school, I had to see a mock patient. I spent a considerable amount of time with the patient, opening up and sharing experiences. At the end of the exercise, the patient had to rate me as a doctor. I was thrilled when I received a 100-percent rating, which solidified to me that people want a doctor who understands what they’re going through.
However, when my proctor scored me, he said that I “got too personal” and opened up too much with the patient. And he suggested that I sit behind a desk with a lab coat and show my authority.
Although I appreciated and respected his opinion, I felt differently. I kept coming back to one thought: How can I encourage someone to take control of their health if they can’t see that I understand their concerns and frustrations?
In the end, you, the patient, has to learn from the office visit and make the appropriate changes. The power lies in your hands. And I believe patients benefit from an open approach. As such, I still apply that doctor-patient relationship approach in my practice to this very day. And, interestingly, there’s proof that prioritizing this relationship is crucial in patients achieving better health outcomes.
According to a 2017 study, building trust and rapport early in a new doctor-patient relationship is absolutely vital in improving a patient’s overall health care experience. Researchers noted that new patients have a high risk of missing subsequent visits or dropping their health care altogether.
In all, the researchers found that truly educating patients while remaining understanding and nonjudgmental not only calmed patients’ feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, but also gave them a quality health care experience. This not only encouraged their attendance at future appointments, but also motivated them to adhere to their treatment plans. 
In addition, a 2018 review of over 17 articles revealed that both trust and communication were two doctor-patient relationship qualities positively related to patient satisfaction and perceived quality of health care. The authors of this review noted that these qualities were linked to better compliance in following medical advice and treatment plans. 
So, what does all of this mean? It means that you have a far greater likelihood of sticking to a health treatment plan if you have a quality relationship with your doctor. But how do you know what to look for? After all, not all doctors are the same. Let’s take a look at some of the key qualities you should seek to help you find a physician who will prioritize a beneficial doctor-patient relationship with you.
The 5 Actions That Support a Strong Doctor-Patient Relationship
Now, let’s revisit that 2017 study on the importance of building a strong doctor-patient relationship. The researchers found that doctors could help cement stronger relationships by taking five specific actions with new patients. Here are the five actions you should look for your doctor to take.
1. Your doctor should provide you with reassurance.
If you’ve ever been faced with an inexplicable symptom or frightening health condition, the very first thing you probably wanted to hear was some reassurance that there was hope for improvement. So often, patients look to their doctors for comfort and guidance. Look for a doctor who takes a few moments to truly understand and address your biggest concerns.
2. Your doctor should encourage you to ask questions.
These days, doctors’ schedules are so slammed that they’re often in-and-out in a span of 15 minutes (or less!). Maybe you’ve experienced this, where your doctor seems distracted or in a hurry because he or she is running behind. What happens? Well, any important questions you have are postponed. You end up leaving your appointment with unanswered questions and fuzzy guidelines on what to do next.
One of the best signs that your doctor prioritizes a strong doctor-patient relationship is if he or she not only takes the time to answer your questions but also encourages you to ask them! This shows you that your doctor truly cares and is invested in your wellbeing, which, in turn, makes you more invested as well!
3. Your doctor should show you your lab results and, more importantly, explain what they mean.
How often have you been to a doctor’s office and been told something along the lines of, “Oh, these levels are high/low. Do this,” without much explanation? You leave feeling confused and unsure about what’s going on in your body and why you received those specific lab results. That doesn’t make you feel very motivated, does it? Instead of leaving your office visit armed with knowledge and motivation, you’re left wondering about the true state of your health.
You can feel confident that your doctor values a strong doctor-patient relationship if he or she truly takes the time to review and fully explain your lab results—and any other test results for that matter. You should leave each appointment feeling truly educated about what’s happening inside your body, how the lab results reflect the state of your health, what your optimal treatment plan is, and why that treatment plan is best for your individual health needs.
4. Your doctor should avoid judgmental behaviors and language.
When doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, or an oath of ethics taken by all physicians, they must first promise to do no harm to their patients. Part of that is remaining compassionate and understanding so that you feel at ease and comfortable sharing your entire health picture with your doctor.
If you feel your doctor is judging your habits and/or health history, you’ll be less likely to share all of the information your doctor needs to know in order to form an effective treatment plan with you. A huge part of a solid doctor-patient relationship is feeling fully understood and supported by your doctor. Accept nothing less.
5. Your doctor should ask about your goals and preferences.
Of course your doctor will have his or her thoughts and suggestions once they hear about your health history and current symptoms (if any), but your health goals should play a huge factor in any treatment plan proposed. After all, no one—not even your doctor—is as familiar with your body as you are. You also know what’s worked for you in the past, as well as what hasn’t.
Remember to share what you’re looking to achieve in regards to your health so that your treatment plan can be customized for your unique needs. And if your doctor balks at hearing about your goals and preferences, seek out another physician. After all, your health is on the line. You need to feel completely confident that your doctor truly has your best interests at heart and is truly invested in your care. That will set you up for success by motivating you to achieve your health goals.
- Establishing a strong doctor-patient relationship is key for the success of your health treatment plan.
- New patients have a high risk of missing subsequent visits or dropping their health care altogether. But researchers found that when doctors focus on calming patients’ feelings of anxiety and vulnerability and displayed understanding, patients are more likely to attend future appointments adhere to treatment plans.
- Trust and communication are two doctor-patient relationship qualities positively related to patient satisfaction and perceived quality of health care.
- There are five actions your doctor should take to facilitate a strong doctor-patient relationship, including: reassuring you, encouraging you to ask questions, thoroughly explaining your lab results, avoiding judgmental behaviors and language, and asking about your goals and preferences.