How to Form a Great Doctor-Patient Relationship

You’ve had your physical. Now it’s time to give your doctor a checkup—and find out if he’s really right for you.

Photo by Ivan Brunetti

When you’re in a great doctor-patient relationship, you just know it. “You feel as if you’re working as a team—you’re partners in your health care,” says Judy Cook, M.D., a longtime patient advocate and the author of To Die or Not to Die: Ten Tricks to Getting Better Medical Care ($18, For your part, you’re honest about your health issues, you show up for appointments on time, and you follow instructions carefully. Your doctor, in turn, sees you promptly and for as long as you need. She speaks and listens to you with respect, diagnoses your illnesses at the first clear sign, and, most important, gets you feeling better as soon as possible. “With a good doctor, you always leave the office feeling that she cares about you,” says Joseph J. Pinzone, M.D., the CEO and medical director of Amai Medical and Wellness Practice, in Santa Monica, California.

So do your experiences with your general practitioner fit this description? If not, you’re not alone. According to a 2011 study by global marketing firm Léger–The Research Intelligence Group and data-analytics software developer SSI, approximately two-thirds of patients worldwide say that they’re dissatisfied with their doctors, whether they are primary-care physicians or specialists. But many stick with them anyway, often because they assume that all physicians will treat them the same way, they’re worried about offending their doctors, or they’re overwhelmed by the idea of finding someone new, says Jenny Giblin, a medical family therapist at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital, in Syracuse, New York. And that’s a shame, because a good doctor, one who acts as your advocate, is essential to your well-being. “When you take control of who your doctor is, you take control of your health and you improve your quality of life,” says Giblin. Here, a strategy from experts and physicians for creating a relationship that works.

Step 1: Voicing Your Concerns

What is it about your doctor-patient dynamic that doesn’t feel right? If it’s something immediate and egregious (for example, he prescribed a medication that he forgot you’re allergic to), proceed to step 2. If it’s a common grievance, address it at your next appointment so that he has a chance to make things right. “If I’m doing something wrong, I want to know that,” says Cook. For instance, you might say, “I’m too busy to take a pill three times a day. Could you provide an alternative?” Or “What can I do to be seen on time?” If your doctor seems willing to improve matters, you might decide to stick around. After all, there’s merit in staying with someone who knows your medical history. “A conversation can help you both get over a misunderstanding,” says Cook. In some cases, it can even be the difference between perfunctory care and an outstanding, long-term connection.

Step 2: Ending the Relationship

Not satisfied with how the talk went, or do you simply know that you’re ready to leave? If you have a chronic condition that requires frequent appointments, you might want to skip to step 3 and find a new doctor before leaving the old one. However, if you’re in relatively good health, simply move on. And don’t feel guilty about it: Many general practitioners see close to 100 patients a week, so he might not even notice your absence. Says David G. Borenstein, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., “If I hear that a patient has left, I’m disappointed but not surprised. I usually assume that their insurance changed.” So just call the office and find out the best way to obtain your records (this is your right) or have them transferred to your new physician once you find one.

If you feel that you need to tell your doctor that you’re leaving (for instance, you have a chronic condition or you’ve had a long-term relationship), call the front desk, explain the situation, and ask how the doctor prefers to handle it. He may schedule a phone call or even an in-person chat.