Is Patient Loyalty Dead?

Shelly Reese

Disclosures

November 20, 2013

In This Article

Patient Loyalty Is Being Challenged

When it comes to relationships, few bonds are as sacred as those that you've formed with your patients. You know their most intimate grievances, provide clinical counsel, and restore their vitality -- services they reward with unbridled loyalty.

At least sometimes.

The truth is, patient loyalty is being tested today more than ever before. Relocations, changes in insurance coverage, financial considerations, negative comments voiced in conversation or posted on the Internet, inconvenient offices, hard-to-get appointments, inattentive office staff, and nanosecond office visits can all send a patient packing.

With so many influences hammering on the physician-patient relationship, is loyalty a thing of the past? It depends on who you ask.

Defining Patient Loyalty

"I'm not worried about loyalty," says Reid Blackwelder, MD, a family physician in Kingsport, Tennessee, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "I'm worried about relationships. Loyalty follows from that. Patient loyalty isn't dead because there's something incredibly valuable about a patient being able to say, 'That's my physician.'"

Louis Malinow, MD, a Baltimore, Maryland-based internist, agrees but notes that time constraints are making it increasingly difficult for doctors and patients to cultivate the strong relationships that result in patient loyalty.

"Loyalty means trust, having a relationship, respecting each other, and working together as a team for better outcomes," he says. "But all of that takes time, and it's very difficult to develop a deep relationship if you can only spend 5 or 15 minutes with someone. In the old days of Marcus Welby, things were different. There was a different pace and doctors could ask questions that didn't pertain just to healthcare issues." Patients also feel that loyalty is rooted in a strong relationship, says Lawrence Mallory, PhD, a behavioral economist with Gallup, which conducts research on patient attitudes and experiences. From a patient's perspective, he says, loyalty boils down to 3 questions: Are you happy with your doctor? Are you planning on going back? Would you recommend the doctor?

The doctors who get a resounding "yes" on all of the above are the ones who dig a little deeper, listen a little harder, and spend a little more time with their patients, Mallory says. "Patients are looking for a relationship with their doctor: Did the doctor show respect and listen to them? Did they resolve the problem? Did they spend enough time with them?" Sure, patients want convenience and a friendly, knowledgeable staff too, but the doctor-patient relationship is at the heart of patient loyalty, he says.

Which is why patient loyalty ranges all over the board, Mallory says. Patients may be fiercely loyal to a physician with a friendly smile, a reassuring tone, and great listening skills, but are slow to recommend -- or quick to leave -- a doctor who seems distracted or dismissive. "A doctor can be the most brilliant person on the planet and may be clinically excellent, but if he didn't listen or show respect, from a patient's perspective he just blew it."

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