The importance of physician-patient relationships, communication and trust in health care


By Dr Lamin K. Ceesay


The physician-patient relationship is a foundation of clinical care. The relationships can have profound positive and negative implications on clinical care. Ultimately, the overarching goal of the physician-patient relationship is to improve patient health outcomes and their medical care. Stronger physician-patient relationships are correlated with improved patient outcomes. As the relationship between physicians and patients becomes more important, it is essential to understand the factors that influence this relationship. Although there are several factors that influence physician-patient relationships, the dynamic shared and sense of trust between physicians and patients are two critical components to their overall relationship. This dynamic refers to the communication patterns and the extent to which decision making is shared between both parties. Effective physician-patient communication is an integral part of clinical practice and serves as the keystone of this relationships. Studies have shown the approach taken by physicians to communicate information is equally important as the actual information that is being communicated. This type of communication incorporates both verbal and nonverbal interactions between physicians and patients. Effective communication has been shown to influence a wide array of outcomes including: emotional health, symptoms resolution, function, pain control, and physiologic measures such as blood pressure levels. When miscommunication occurs, it can have severe negative implications in clinical care such as impeding patient understanding, expectations of treatment, treatment planning, decreasing patient satisfaction of medical care, and reducing levels of patient hopefulness.


In addition to having effective communication, it is important that medical decisions stem from a collaborative process between physicians and patients. Decision making is a process in which patients should be involved from the very beginning, and the result is a decision which reflects the physician’s medical knowledge as well as the patient’s values and beliefs. Collaborative communication and decision making have been correlated with greater patient satisfaction and loyalty. Working from a collaborative framework along with effective physician-patient communication can also strengthen a physician’s ability to utilize a personalized health care model through patient empowerment.

Trust is a fundamental characteristic of the physician-patient relationship. Patients must trust that their physicians will work in their best interests to achieve optimal health outcomes. Patients’ trust in their physicians has been demonstrated to be more important than treatment satisfaction in predictions of patient adherence to recommendations and their overall satisfaction with care. Studies have also shown that trust is additionally a strong predictor of a patient continuing with their provider. Trust extends to many different aspects of the physician-patient relationships including, but not limited to: physicians’ willingness to listen to patients, patients’ believing that physicians value their autonomy and ability to make informed decisions, and patients feeling comfortable enough to express and engage in dialogue related to their health concerns.

The idea of viewing physician-patient relationships as a core element of quality health care is not something new, however understanding and assessing the factors that influence this relationship is just beginning. Effective physician-patient communication has been shown to positively influence health outcomes by increasing patient satisfaction, leading to greater patient understanding of health problems and treatments available, contributing to better adherence to treatment plans, and providing support and reassurance to patients. Collaborative decision making enables physicians and patients to work as partners in order to achieve a mutual health goal. Trust within all areas of the physician-patient relationship is a critical factor that influences communication between both parties. As health care transforms into a more personalized and patient-centered model, the physician-patient relationship will significantly shape health outcomes. The personalized health care model encourages collaboration among physicians and patients in order to create shared health goals and the cultivation of a health plan to address identified problems. By understanding the factors that influence patient-physician relationships, in the future, health care providers will be able to address some of the barriers that prevent the adoption of more personalized approaches to health care.

The doctor-patient relationship should be “a consensual relationship in which the patient knowingly seeks the physician’s assistance and in which the physician knowingly accepts the person as a patient. At its core, the doctor-patient relationship represents a fiduciary relationship in which, by entering into the relationship, the physician agrees to respect the patient’s autonomy, maintain confidentiality, explain treatment options, obtain informed consent, provide the highest standard of care, and commit not to abandon the patient without giving him or her adequate time to find a new doctor. However, such a contractual definition fails to portray the immense and profound nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Patients sometimes reveal secrets, worries, and fears to physicians that they have not yet disclosed to friends or family members. Placing trust in a doctor helps them maintain or regain their health and well-being.


Essentially, the doctor-patient relationship involves vulnerability and trust. It is one of the most moving and meaningful experiences shared by human beings. However, this relationship and the encounters that flow from it are not always perfect. As our vignettes intended to illustrate, the doctor-patient relationship is a powerful part of a doctor’s visit and can alter health outcomes for patients. Therefore, it is important for physicians to recognize when the relationship is challenged or failing. If the relationship is challenged or failing, physicians should be able to recognize the causes for the disruption in the relationship and implement solutions to improve care.