Reasons Why Patients Change Doctors and Ideas to Stop the Departures

Copyright 2022

While doctors sometimes "fire" uncooperative or non-paying patients, the reverse can also happen. Patients can become dissatisfied with their current physicians and switch to new ones. Obviously, this might not be good for your pocketbook or reputation.

Sometimes, there's nothing you can say to departing patients besides wishing them well. For example, if a patient moves out of the area, you are unlikely to provide future treatment to them. But, in other cases, you can take control over the issues driving patients out the door and make needed changes.

Try Exceeding Patients' Expectations

Naturally, patients expect excellent medical care from their doctors. But they also want consideration and pleasantness in interactions that they have with your practice. Here are some quick ideas:

  • Make sure your staff are trained in customer service.
  • Do your best to minimize wait times.
  • If possible, tell patients why they have been waiting. For example, "the doctor was called to the hospital for an emergency" can cause patients to understand a delay, rather than feel their time was not valued.
  • Thank patients for choosing your practice.
  • Ask what you can do to improve their experiences.
  • Address issues that arise so word-of-mouth comments and online reviews about your practice are not negative.

Seven Reasons for a Switch

So why do patients switch to a new doctor? Here are seven possible reasons:

1. The practice seems disorganized. Physician practices can be very busy places, but they shouldn't appear disorganized. For example, telephone calls shouldn't be returned late or not at all. Or it shouldn't take several calls to make an appointment or request a prescription refill.

In some practices, patients spend too much time in the waiting room and then sitting alone in the exam room. Another big "no-no" is having error-ridden personal records and insurance forms. Staff members should be clear and consistent regarding your practice's policies for everything from making appointments to paying bills.

2. Confidence has declined. Most patients take their physicians' competence for granted. But if, after an office visit, a patient feels uneasy about the doctor's decisions and recommendations, he or she may not return. If you feel like you're not projecting an air of certainty when making diagnoses, it may be time to brush up on your communication skills.

3. Practice knowledge is out-of-date. It might be daunting for physicians to keep up with the latest findings in their fields of medicine. Nevertheless, you must convey your efforts to do so to your patients. Beginning a recommendation with, "I just read in the New England Journal of Medicine that …" can make a difference.

4. The doctor doesn't listen. An office visit shouldn't leave a patient feeling that he or she has no choice but to accept the doctor's recommendations. Patients should have your undivided attention and feel comfortable raising questions. Something is wrong if the patient feels unable to speak up. Welcome each patient as an active participant in managing his or her health, and listen to what they have to say.

5. Desired amenities are missing. The quality of the practice's medicine may be excellent, but lacking just a few key features may alienate some patients. The office location, for example, may be difficult to reach by public transportation. Or perhaps it has inadequate parking.

Some practices may have inconvenient office hours or no extended hours. Maybe the doctor is unwilling or unable to communicate by email. Such amenities may be mandatory for some patients.

6. The doctor has poor bedside manner. Obviously, the way a doctor deals with patients is critical. Patients aren't likely to stick with a physician who's unsympathetic or disrespectful. They want a doctor who understands not only how to treat their medical condition, but also how it affects other areas of their lives.

With time, it's possible to improve one's bedside manner. An understanding, empathetic demeanor will help you both retain patients and improve their adherence to your medical directives.

7. The practice doesn't accept a patient's health plan. Many patients won't stay with a practice that charges more for the same care offered by another physician. This can happen if the practice doesn't accept the patient's health plan or charges out-of-pocket fees that patients consider excessive.

If you haven't already, establish a strategic goal of signing contracts with all major health plans typical to your market. A benchmark comparison of your practice's fees will indicate whether you need to adjust them.

Turning Bad to Good

If you've noted any of the above issues in your practice, consider taking corrective action as soon as possible. Start by becoming more alert to what patients are saying -- both verbally and non-verbally -- about their experiences. Send out regular patient satisfaction surveys and note specific problems and trends.

Also consider hiring an independent consultant to conduct periodic patient focus groups. Just as retail stores use "mystery shoppers" to uncover customer grievances, consider arranging visits by "mystery patients."