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When Physicians Have To Say No: Does Patient Satisfaction Suffer?

The short answer: No.

At least not in the context of a strong physician-patient relationship.

Many physicians have legitimate concerns about the prospects of having their salary or level reimbursement linked to patient satisfaction. I would too given the way most health care providers go about measuring and interpreting patient satisfaction data.

A major concern of physicians is the issue of patient requests – particularly the impact of unfulfilled (and unreasonable) requests upon patient satisfaction. According to researchers, explicit patient requests for medications, diagnostic tests and specialty referrals occur in between 25% to 40% of primary care visits. This figure is much higher when requests for information are factored in.

In studies, primary care physicians accommodate patient requests for medications and diagnostic tests approximately 75% of the time. Physicians however accommodated only 40% of specialist referral requests. Physicians negotiated alternatives solutions to patient requests 22% of the time and denied patient requests the remaining 3% of the time. Information requests were met approximately 95% of the time by physicians.

Denial Of Patient Requests Has Little Impact On Patient Satisfaction

It is not at all clear from the research that physician denial of patient requests for medications, tests or specialist referrals has any negative effect on patient satisfaction. In the studies referenced here, little to no association was found between unfulfilled patient requests and patient satisfaction.

The one exception to this finding is where physicians fail to meet patient requests for health information. In such instances patient satisfaction was lower. This is not surprising when one study categorized the quality of physician responses to patient information requests as follows:

  • 32% were of requests were fulfilled with a “terse” physician response
  • 33% percent were fulfilled with an “intermediate” response
  • 32% percent with an “elaborate” response.

Experts Advise Negotiating Patients Requests

It has been said that clinical encounters such as occur during office visits involve a “process of negotiation between the clinician and patient.” As such, physicians are advised to use the influence accorded them by their patients to help them understand the pros and cons of their request so as to negotiate actions are really needed.

Physicians that are truly concerned about their patient satisfaction score are better served by looking after the quality of their patient communications skills.


Kravitz RL, Bell R a, Franz CE, et al. Characterizing patient requests and physician responses in office practice. Health Services Research. 2002;37(1):217-38.

Kravitz RL, Bell R a, Azari R, et al. Direct observation of requests for clinical services in office practice: what do patients want and do they get it? Archives of Internal Medicine. 2003;163(14):1673-81.

Peck BM, Asch DA, Goold SD, et al. Measuring Patient Expectations – Does the Instrument Affect Satisfaction or Expectations? Medical Care, Vol. 39, No. 1 pp. 100-108.

Keitz S a, Stechuchak KM, Grambow SC, Koropchak CM, Tulsky J. Behind closed doors: management of patient expectations in primary care practices. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2007;167(5):445-52.

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

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