OBJECTIVE: To compare patients' and physicians' opinions on the importance of discrete elements of health care as determinants of the quality of outpatient care.
DESIGN: Analysis of results of a mailed survey.
SETTING: Community-based internal medicine practices.
PARTICIPANTS: 74 general internists and 814 patients randomly selected from the practices of these internists.
MEASURES: 125 elements of care that covered nine domains were identified: physician clinical skill, physician interpersonal skill, support staff, office environment, provision of information, patient involvement, nonfinancial access, finances, and coordination of care. Participants rated each element on its importance to high-quality care on a 4-point scale: 1 = not important; 2 = of medium importance; 3 = of high importance; and 4 = essential. Patients' and physicians' ratings were compared for individual elements of care and for elements aggregated into domains.
RESULTS: Survey response rates were 93% for physicians and 60% for patients. In an element-by-element comparison of ratings, ratings by the two groups differed substantially for 58% of the attributes. The most striking difference was seen in the domain of provision of information (median ratings, 3.56 for patients and 2.85 for physicians; P < 0.001). Ratings by the two groups also differed in the domains of clinical skill (3.75 for patients and 3.35 for physicians; P < 0.001), nonfinancial access (3.00 for patients and 2.87 for physicians; P < 0.001), and finances (3.00 for patients and 2.80 for physicians; P = 0.006). When relative rankings of the domains were compared, both groups agreed that clinical skill is most important; however, patients ranked provision of information second in importance whereas physicians ranked it sixth.
CONCLUSIONS: Patients and physicians agreed that the most crucial element of outpatient care is clinical skill, but they disagreed about the relative importance of other aspects of care, particularly effective communication of health-related information. These differences in perception may influence the quality of interactions between physicians and patients.
(October 15, 1996)