Lessons learned: What patients said about their experience in primary care practices

primary care
Patients spoke out about what makes a good doctor and primary care practice. (Getty/Milkos)

What makes a good doctor? Just ask their patients.

Based on a new survey, it becomes clear that good communication with their physicians, as well as with other clinicians, is key to a positive patient experience.

That’s a big lesson from the Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP) survey of patient experiences in primary care practices across that state. The survey included almost 60,000 patients and asked about details of the care they received at their doctors’ offices.


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The independent healthcare measurement and reporting organization has been surveying patients about their experiences for 14 years, but this was the first year they did an extensive analysis of patient responses to open-ended questions.

Positive comments that got physician practices high scores in MHQP’s ratings were most commonly focused on a doctor’s caring and compassionate attitude and the patient’s feeling they were respected and listened to, according to MHQP.

“These comments provide rich opportunities for providers to better understand what actions can affect a patient’s experience,” said Barbra Rabson, MHQP’s president and CEO. “We hope this critical feedback will help primary care practices build positive and constructive relationships between providers and patients, which can help improve both patient and provider experiences.”

So what did patients have to say?

“[My doctor] always greets me warmly with an attitude that communicates he’s glad to see me. I have no problem speaking frankly and directly with him about any problem,” one patient said.

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“[My doctor] is easy to talk with, asks probing questions in a nonjudgmental way and never rushes me. I feel he has my best interest at heart,” said another.

In contrast, in negative comments associated with low rating scores, patients complained about physicians who showed disrespect, poor listening, blaming or judging and an insensitive demeanor, MHQP said. However, less than 1% of patients had negative comments about their primary care experience.

So what insight did patients have about what doctors should not do? “I walked out of the last appointment when she said, ‘You are a BAD patient.’ Rather than assisting me in taking care of my own health she berated me and scolded me,” said one patient.

“I am an inanimate object and he is there to triage my problem and pass it on to someone else. I have no voice, no input. I have never felt so objectified,” said another patient.

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“I may not have a medical degree, but I know my body better than any doctor and she NEVER listened to me,” said another.

MHQP conducts the only publicly reported statewide survey of patient experiences in primary care in the state and posts the results on its consumer-focused website HealthcareCompassMA.org. Patients can use the data to compare primary care practices and find a provider.

This past year, MHQP also recognized top performing practices with the first annual MHQP Patient Experience Awards. The group recognized adult and pediatric practices that performed highest on the survey in each of nine performance categories—from patient-provider communication to how well providers know their patients to the professionalism of office staff—as well as overall winners.

The survey included patients from 842 adult and 343 pediatric primary care practices in Massachusetts, representing over 4,000 primary care providers.