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What Builds Loyal Doctor-Patient Relationships?

What motivates a patient to stay with a doctor? Foremost you need to be a good doctor, but there are other factors that complicate the picture.  The other parts are far complicated, healthcare researchers have lots of theories — psychology, smart office design, operations management, and marketing all factor into patient retention.

Sure, a nice office and efficiency are wonderful — who doesn’t love walking into a clean, state-of-the-art waiting area equipped with comfortable seating and wifi?  And yet, when we asked doctors, “What’s the most effective thing you’ve done to build loyalty?” and patients “What’s the most important thing that keeps you coming back?”  it wasn’t the bells and whistles that made the biggest impact. Rather the simple theme of the “human touch”.

This notion might seem like a given, but administrative and cost pressures can sometimes turn well-meaning doctors into robots, leaving patients with an unpleasant feeling that deters them from coming back. Retention is about relationship building, and without a personal approach, patients lack that feeling of connection with their caregiver.

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When it comes to the human touch, it’s not just about the quality of care but how it’s administered. It’s not just about what a person says, but how it’s said and how it’s followed through.

Below are a collection of quotes from doctors and patients that shed light on how a “human touch” builds strong relationships

“What has been of paramount importance is communication. I always appear not to be in a rush, and I review all of the items on their problems list before they go. This gets to the core of what patients expect and what they really want from their healthcare. To be able to do this, you have to schedule enough time with each patient. When patients have a great experience with not just the doctor but the entire team—the receptionist is super friendly, the surgery scheduler is super efficient, allied providers took great care of them—then that patient will be a practice ambassador for life.

—Lawrence Chao, M.D., Ophthalmologist, Irvine, CA

“I love my back surgeon. He did the most minimal surgery possible. It was harder for him, but better for me. He was calm, clear and understood that I was not the average patient. He was an excellent detective to find the root of the problem. When I woke up from surgery with my entire left leg paralyzed, he was very calming. He explained [the situation] clearly and said if it didn’t [get better], we would move on to learning how to work with it. When he came back an hour later, I could just barely move my big toe, and he said that was an excellent sign. He kept me (and my family) hopeful. And he was right. I now ski, jog, and a whole lot more.”

—E.R., patient

“The most effective thing that I do as a dentist to keep patients loyal is to treat each and every patient with kindness. Going to the dentist is not an enjoyable experience for anyone. As a result, I try my best to make sure that I not only treat the teeth, but I treat the patient as a whole. Everyone is different and has different needs and reservations. Once a patient knows and trusts you as a dentist, they are more comfortable and relaxed to do their dental treatment.”

Arman Roksar, D.D.S., Dentist/Prosthodontics, New York, NY

“I just came back from a really great visit with my ob-gyn, who I’ve been to since being pregnant with my son five years ago. I really like him because of his tone and how he engaged he is. He really took the time to explain things and gave ample time in case I had questions. And he really remembers me, my husband, and my son. After the exam, he even asked that I stop by his offices two door down and said he’d love to see how my son has grown.”

–J.M., patient

“I finally found a dermatologist I’m going back to. It sounds ridiculous, but the fact that she speaks to me and looks at me at the same time makes a huge difference. I’ve been to a lot of dermatologists for the same condition. While I felt others ran through a checklist of questions at breakneck speed and seemed ready to give me a prescription before I finished answering the last question, my most recent dermatologist followed up on my responses. She gave me medication with little tips on how to optimize the results—and for the first time in many years my condition was resolved.”

—A.Y., patient

“When I spend money, I like being treated like a VIP and I try to do the same for my patients. I feel it’s important to always be available to your patients. My employees all know our patients by name and they will gladly accommodate them with an appointment on an emergency basis.  I treat patients non-operatively whenever possible—it’s good to have a reputation as the surgeon who not only knows how to operate, but also, more importantly, when to operate.  Also, patients appreciate that you run on time and are mindful of their time. Patients who know you do this will return the favor and be on time so that they don’t ruin your calendar. Finally, I always finish every appointment with: “Have I answered all of your questions?”

—Glenn D. Cohen, M.D., Orthopedist/hand, wrist and elbow surgery, Westlake Village, CA

“I like my primary care doctor because he takes the time to sit down and ask questions that pertain to my overall lifestyle that may affect my condition. I don’t feel rushed or as if I’ve been asked bullet-point questions like he is going through his to-do list. The experience of the visit (his body language, tone of voice, eye contact, etc.) reflects authentic care about me as a person and not as an appointment placeholder.”

—J.L., patient

“I make sure I give people the time and attention they need and to explain the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ and answer any questions. It’s important to be professional, but also to provide a feeling of personal attention—making patients feel they are important and that I care about them getting better.”

—Glenn Brooks, physical therapist, Scottsdale, Arizona

“My dentist has been our family dentist for decades and continues to see everyone in my family, from my nephew who lives in Switzerland to my 90-year-old mother. He is caring and patient. He never rushes anything, is detail-oriented and always prompt. He is also direct and straightforward—if he thinks he’s not the right person to do something he will refer me to someone he knows will get the job done well. He has my absolute trust.

—L.S., patient

“I think starting each visit by chatting for even a few seconds about something unrelated to a patient’s medical condition shows you’re not in a rush (even if you’re running really behind) and helps the patient feel like you’re invested in how he or she is doing. I’ll also jot down little tidbits in his or her chart about hobbies, family, job or upcoming vacations so if/when they return, they are pleasantly surprised that you remember a detail. No one wants to feel like a number in someone’s day. For people who are anxious about their condition or upset about a long wait, I’ve found that acknowledging their feelings and letting them talk for a bit are good ways to start.”

 —J.A., dermatologist, Los Angeles, California 

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