Researchers at St Leonard's Practice in Exeter and the University of Exeter Medical School — both in the United Kingdom — have conducted a systematic review into the link between continuity of care (seeing the same doctor regularly over time) and patient death rates.
The study is the first of its kind, and its findings may have vital implications for prioritizing the bettering of patient care and doctor-patient communication.
First study author Denis Pereira Gray and his colleagues analyzed 22 cohort and cross-sectional studies that explored continuity of care and patient mortality.
"Continuity of care," explains study co-author Prof. Philip Evans, "happens when a patient and a doctor see each other repeatedly and get to know each other."
"This," he continues, "leads to better communication, patient satisfaction, adherence to medical advice, and much lower use of hospital services."
That is exactly why the researchers were motivated to gather evidence of the importance of a consolidated doctor-patient relationship and the benefits that it can bring.
The results of the systematic review are now published in BMJ Open.
Continuity of care and patient health
The 22 studies analyzed in the systematic review included data from nine different countries and cultures that adhered to different health systems.
In short, following their analysis of the relevant literature, the study authors found that seeing the same doctor for advice over time was linked to lower death rates among patients.
This was observed in 18 (82 percent) of the studies examined by the research team.
Also, this association applied to different kinds of doctors, other than family physicians — including, for instance, surgeons and psychiatrists.
The researchers believe that this makes total sense, considering that by seeing the same specialist repeatedly, the patient has the opportunity to build up a relationship of trust that benefits both parties.
With better trust, doctors get to learn more relevant details about their patients and their states of health.
'Literally' a life and death situation
Furthermore, a consolidated doctor-patient relationship also ensures that the patient will follow the specialist's advice more closely, leading to better health outcomes.
"Patients have long known," notes Gray, "that it matters which doctor they see and how well they can communicate with them."
"Until now arranging for patients to see the doctor of their choice has been considered a matter of convenience or courtesy: now it is clear it is about the quality of medical practice and is literally 'a matter of life and death.'"
Denis Pereira Gray
The researchers also argue that their findings support the notion that we should start investing more in the humans who work in healthcare, and not just in the technology that they use.
"As medical technology and new treatments dominate the medical news, the human aspect of medical practice has been neglected," warns Prof. Evans.
"Our study shows it is potentially life-saving and should be prioritized," he urges.