Most primary care doctors have favorite patients, study finds

As a teacher, I try to treat all my students equally but I definitely have favorites. I’m sure other teachers have favorite students too, so it makes sense to learn that physicians have favorite patients.

A team of researchers led by Joy Lee, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, interviewed 25 primary care physicians who worked in clinical settings within the Johns Hopkins medical system about their favorite patients. The participating physicians were predominantly white and about evenly split between male and female.

The doctors were a bit uncomfortable with the term ‘favorite patient,’ the researchers reported in Patient Education and Counseling. It raised concerns regarding boundaries and favoritism. However, all but three of the participating physicians admitted to having favorite patients.

The goal of the study was to identify the common attributes of these physicians’ favorite patients and examine how having favorite patients impacts their physician-patient relationships.

Who were the favorites? Surprisingly, they weren’t typically the most compliant patients or the ones most similar to the doctors. Instead, they were long-term patients who spent more time with their physician while going through a major illness. So the doctors were very familiar with their favorite patients’ personalities and health histories — allowing them to provide the best care.

“For patients, these findings highlight the importance of having a usual source of care, a primary care doctor with whom they can establish a relationship,” said Lee in a recent news release. “Favorite patients might not be consistently sick, but when a crisis comes they have an existing relationship to work off of.”

Of course having favorites isn’t the same as playing favorites. The participating physicians argued that their awareness of having both favorite and challenging patients helps them prevent favoring the care of certain patients over others. They also generally like most of their patients.

“This concern demonstrates that physicians are striving to be fair and to give all their patients the best possible care,” Lee said. “We discovered that doctors really thought about their relationship with patients, which is encouraging from a patient perspective. Their thinking really humanizes the patient-physician relationship.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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