Strictly Business: The Professional Side of the Provider/Patient Relationship

You don’t have to be a member of the infamous Corleone Mafia family to understand there’s a difference between what’s personal and what’s business:

provider/patient relationship, primary care, relationship-based care

But sometimes the lines are blurred, and distinctions are easier in theory than reality—especially within the provider/patient relationship of primary care.

This relationship can’t thrive without some measure of friendship. Where we need clarity, however, is understanding the difference between professional and personal friendship. We’ll take a look here at characteristics of a healthy provider/patient relationship, consequences of poor boundaries and how professional friendship promotes robust primary care.

The “familiar physician” at work

In my book Lost and Found: A Consumer’s Guide to Healthcare (co-authored with Dr. Paul Grundy), we discussed the impact of the “familiar physician” on patient health:   

“Keep in mind that a familiar physician may be the most valuable professional relationship you’ll ever have, seeing you through many of the stages and transitions of your life... Based on a considerable body of research, you’re more likely to live longer, live healthier, and spend less for medical care when you see your familiar physician on a long-term basis. No other single entity in medicine can help you achieve those outcomes.”

But it’s not always easy to translate value into practice. And if you’re a provider trying to deliver accessible, relationship-based care to your panel, you’ve got your work cut out for you, particularly when navigating the murky waters of professional versus personal friendship.

A provider’s responsibilities to patients (i.e. what he or she is paid to deliver)—personal connection, timely access and competent medical practice—can’t exist in isolation of one another. The balance of these three areas is essential to the robust primary care system required for our society and to the quality, cost-effective care patients need. And the latter two are crucial for reaching the Triple Aim.

Tried and true

Trust helps people relax, let down their guard and feel safe. That’s the kind of environment patients need, and it’s the most basic element of a strong provider/patient relationship. It develops over time as the patient relies on the provider’s expertise to make the best decisions, and the provider expects honesty and cooperation in return. They become true partners, working together for the patient’s well-being.

Every interaction should be focused on medical intervention while getting to know the context of the patient’s life—family issues, economic situation, employment and stress factors—in order to make the best decisions possible for his or her health. That knowledge of the patient beyond EHR data is critical to the quality of care delivered.

But the provider/patient relationship is also a business transaction, which is where it differs so dramatically from a personal friendship. It must be controlled by normal business parameters in order to protect individual interests and make the practice successful. That’s why we have medical records, quality benchmarks and medical liability for the patient’s safety and why the amount of time the provider spends with patients must be limited to maintain the quality of the product (i.e. medical expertise + time).

Don’t take it personally

Another important aspect of a professional friendship is that it serves a specific purpose—something a personal friendship doesn’t always do. A patient’s purpose for a relationship with a provider is to achieve or maintain health at a reasonable expense and receive help making decisions that will lead to continued wellness in the future. 

It can be difficult to keep patient health as the primary focus when a truly gratifying friendship develops. That’s why many providers struggle to keep their interaction within the confines of a professional relationship because they genuinely enjoy getting to know and caring for patients. Those relationships can even become a bit of a refuge for the provider from other stressors. But when personal dynamics take prominence in a professional friendship, they can destroy the very purpose of the relationship and lead to all kinds of bad outcomes. We’ll come back to that topic in a few moments.

Care must be honest and given in the patient’s best interests. Sometimes the most honest, caring thing a provider can do is tell a patient he or she has six months to live. That’s not an easy or enjoyable conversation, but it’s the best kind of care a provider can give to help the patient prepare for what’s to come. Without a strong commitment to act as a practitioner first and friend second, we risk losing the objectivity and candor required for those difficult conversations.

None of my business

During my years as family medicine provider, whenever I had a patient call me his or her best friend I knew that statement indicated one of two things. Either the patient was incredibly lonely and didn’t have much interaction with people beyond the brief and infrequent time with me, or the patient was possibly neurotic and inappropriately focused on what our relationship could provide. Those instances were good reminders of the need for wise interaction with patients to maintain a healthy professional friendship and avoid inappropriate reliance on me.

Disordered or disregarded boundaries can have serious consequences, whether unhealthy dependence develops or a lack of objectivity leads the provider to make faulty decisions. The first casualty is often lack of focus on the primary goal—the patient’s health.

As I’ve worked with practices around the U.S., I’ve observed many providers enter an exam room and spend 10–20 minutes socializing and only five minutes delivering medical care to a patient who’s in terrible health. The patient might appreciate the personal attention, but the interaction doesn’t facilitate better health as effectively as it could—and should.

Poor boundaries can also promote inappropriate behaviors such as control, abuse, relationships of a romantic or sexual nature, or improper prescribing of narcotics because the provider assumes undue responsibility for helping the patient cope with other areas of life.

On perhaps the most practical level, lack of appropriate time boundaries is simply destructive. The provider eventually loses his or her personal life because the workload is unmanageable, staff members get burned out, and financial viability for the practice is threatened.

Balancing act

Lack of appropriate time boundaries is detrimental for patients as well. We’ve become so out of balance as an industry that we’ve emphasized the quality of medical education without making the changes needed to facilitate patient access. Providers in the U.S. have some of the best education in the world, and yet our inattention to time has severely limited access for the patients who need our care. Unlimited time for one patient destroys access for another.

No matter how much trust exists between the provider and patient or how talented the provider is, the relationship fails the patient if timely access isn’t available when it’s needed. And more seriously, unavailable or delayed care can be detrimental to his or her health.

Primary care has become a quagmire because of its struggle to offer personal care within the context of poor business parameters. If we don’t understand the differences between professional and personal friendship, we won’t have the capacity to meet the needs of our patient panels and build financially sustainable practices. That's why it's so critical for us to get it right.

Business is business

Our care for patients should always be focused on strategies to improve their health in the context of appropriate boundaries. We can’t be great providers without creating an environment in which patients feel known and safe. That level of relational investment drew me to primary care, and the pleasure of caring for patients over time and helping them experience the best quality of life possible is what made me stay.

But like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, we have to remember that despite our personal involvement with patients, the revitalization of primary care through strong professional friendships must be strictly business.

₁ Lost and Found: A Consumer’s Guide to Healthcare by Peter B. Anderson, MD and Paul H. Grundy, MD with Tom Emswiller and Bud Ramey