Contributed by Nisha K. Cooch, PhD

Doctors need to know more than just medicine in order to be successful. They also need to know how to attract patients to their practice and how to keep those patients coming back. Doctors who try to learn about the best ways to bring patients into their practice may find studies that say that patients make their choices based on doctors’ merits.

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What patients say they consider while choosing a doctor

Patients do claim that details related to a doctor’s professional and management characteristics are important to them. They say that personal characteristics are less important. Patients also report wanting a personal relationship with doctors when they have serious psychological or family difficulties.

What patients actually consider when choosing a doctor

The fields of neuroscience and psychology have revealed in many ways that what people say about their behavior is not always the same as what they do. As a consequence, doctors should look at the real behavior of patients if they want to truly understand what makes patients choose certain doctors.

The number one thing people seem to care about when choosing their doctor is ease. Convenience matters to people, so they choose doctors who are easy to find, are located near them, easy to get to, and whose services are covered by their insurance.

Neuroscience has also helped explain human bias and how it contributes to our choices. These biases affect how patients choose their doctors. For example, given the choice, people tend to select doctors who are of the same race as them. Patients also then tend to like doctors that are of the same race as them more. Being the same race as a patient may bring you more patients and may make patients more likely to return to your practice. It is important to remember that patients who claim that they are not concerned with doctor’s personal characteristics cannot help but be unconsciously influenced by such factors.

Dr. Pronovost of Johns Hopkins University, says that patients often focus too much on one aspect of their doctors when evaluating whether they like and trust their doctor. He mentions that patients focus on whether the doctor is friendly, whether the doctor communicates medical information well, or whether the doctor is known as an excellent doctor. A good doctor does all of these things, but a patient may think the doctor is good if the doctor is strong in one of these areas.

Related reading: Does a doctor’s physical appearance affect patient perception?

What patients might consider when choosing a doctor in the future

Many experts say that patients need to think more seriously about how good of a doctor someone is before choosing to trust them. However, it makes sense that patients do not think too seriously about a doctor’s medical performance because it is not easy to find this type of information. In other words, it is hard to learn about a doctors’ true abilities in medicine. In the future, we find ways to make it easier for patients to learn about how well doctors perform. If this happens, patients may start to base their choices on factors that are more likely to contribute to their health. For now, those who are interested in choosing their doctors based on his or her merits are likely to conduct their own research and also rely on the opinions of their family and friends.

Neuroscience tells us that we make mental shortcuts. The nature of our brains leads us to make judgments about doctors, even when we do not know we are making those judgments. Even if we know we should think about information that is related to doctor’s skills, we cannot help but use simpler strategies to evaluate doctors.

Nisha Kaul Cooch is the founder of BioInnovation Consulting LLC, a life sciences communications firm based in Washington DC. Dr. Cooch holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and specializes in the intersection of technology and decision making.

Views expressed are the author’s own.