What Do Patients Want from Primary Care Physicians?

Stacey Kelleher

5 min read

As of January 2023, there were more than 500,000 active primary care physicians (PCPs) registered in the United States. And that market is projected to grow annually at a rate of 3.3 percent. However, widespread healthcare staffing shortages mean there may not be enough PCPs to meet that demand.

Current PCPs are finding it challenging to provide optimal patient care while feeling stretched thin due to higher patient loads. Now more than ever, it’s vital for PCPs to understand what their patients are looking for in a primary care provider, so they can meet their needs effectively and efficiently—without becoming burned out.

Here are 7 things patients are looking for when choosing primary care doctors.

1. Availability for Sick and Well Visits

As a PCP, you are the patient’s main healthcare provider for non-emergency situations, and routine physical wellness exams are the foundation of this care. These appointments can be scheduled months in advance.

Yet, patients also want to know that if they get sick unexpectedly, they will not have to wait weeks to see you. How do you manage sick visits? Do you leave openings to accommodate patients with urgent medical needs, squeeze them in between other patients, or send them to a different provider?

Patients appreciate the confidence of knowing their PCP is available for same-day and call-ahead appointments, if needed.

2. Ability to Treat a Diverse Patient Base

For patients with spouses and children, it’s helpful to have a PCP who treats every member of the family. Having a common provider saves time, energy, and the confusion of having to see a variety of different doctors.

If you’re a PCP who specializes in pediatrics, for example, consider expanding your practice to bring PCPs on board who treat adults and seniors. This creates a continuity of care that allows your patients and their loved ones to remain with you at every age and stage of life.

3. Patient Portals and Electronic Health Records

Today’s patient is more informed about their own health and wellness than ever before. Electronic health records (EHRs) allow patients to access and manage their own health data including tests results, diagnoses, and medications. They can use this information to become more engaged in their own healthcare decisions and outcomes.

More PCPs are also utilizing online patient portals for scheduling appointments, requesting medication refills, and patient communications. Simple tasks that used to require phone calls to the offices (and often long wait times on hold) can now be done with a few clicks of the computer mouse.

When it comes to what patients want from their PCP, the convenience of digital health technologies cannot be understated.

4. Telemedicine and Virtual Appointments

As we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, it’s possible to provide high-quality healthcare virtually without sacrificing patient outcomes. In fact, research from more than 22 different studies found that patients are often more satisfied with telehealth compared to face-to-face appointments, particularly when it saves them time and travel.

Of course, some conditions cannot be diagnosed or evaluated through telehealth. Physical exams are often medically necessary. Many PCPs are answering that challenge by instituting a “hybrid” care model that combines in-person appointments with telehealth care.

To determine which is appropriate, PCPs consider (1) if it is safe and appropriate to meet virtually and (2) if the patient is amenable and able to see the doctor online or by phone. Offering telemedicine is one more way to add value as a PCP and improve patient loyalty and retention.

5. Emphasis on Prevention

As patients become more engaged and empowered to take charge of their own health, there seems to be a greater emphasis on preventive care.  Back in 2000, researchers called the increasing focus on the use of complementary therapies and integrative medicine “a paradigm shift in medical education and practice.”

PCPs are an integral part of this paradigm shift and have the training and skills to thrive in this new era of healthcare. Patients see the connections between diet, sleep, exercise, and stress-management—and their physical health. They want a PCP who helps them prevent disease before it occurs and educates them on healthy lifestyle choices that will help them feel better for longer.

6. Empathy and Personal Connection

Because they offer care throughout different stages of life, PCPs have the time and history to forge meaningful relationships with their patients. Patients who trust their PCP and see them as a partner in their health are more likely to stay on top of routine care and be transparent about any symptoms or concerns they have.

Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the basis for another’s feelings. While some might argue that clinical empathy is not a requirement of a good physician, many patients might disagree. It goes without saying that a patient is more likely to choose a PCP who they believe genuinely cares about their needs and is invested in their healthcare journey.

7. Positive Feedback from Other Patients

Don’t underestimate the importance of patient feedback—for better or worse. Research on the relationship on the influence of provider reviews to how patients choose PCPs and other physicians is relatively limited at this time. However, it’s hard to argue that negative online feedback will not have a destructive impact on your practice. We say yes, send those surveys. But more importantly: read them and learn from them.

Patterns of negative comments suggest you may be falling short in some areas. That can be anything from how much time you spend with a patient, to how user-friendly your patient portal is. If you want to be the best PCP possible, listen to your patients and be open to change to meet their ever-evolving needs.