Lower mortality rates in patients who visit the same doctor each time, study shows

A new study has found that patients who see a single doctor over the course of time and thus experience continuity of care, are less likely to die than those whose healthcare providers change repeatedly.

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The study, exploring the connection between patient death rates and continued care by one doctor, was carried out by researchers at St Leonard's Practice in Exeter and the University of Exeter Medical School.

Professor Philip Evans, University of Exeter Medical School, one of the researchers of the study, explained that “continuity of care” occurs only with repeated contact and familiarity between a patient and a doctor, and is associated in turn with good communication. This leads to highly beneficial outcomes including significantly better compliance with medical advice, higher patient satisfaction scores and lower hospitalization rates.

The study was a systematic review that made use of 22 high-quality studies carried out over different periods, in nine different countries which had quite different cultures and healthcare systems. Among these, continuity of care was linked to fewer deaths in the study period in 18/22 (82%) of studies.

Researchers concluded that when a patient was always or repeatedly seen by the same doctor, the death rate went down. The study drew attention to the place of human interactions in medical practice, with its “potentially life-saving” role, concluding that this aspect should receive much higher priority, in place of the current focus on advanced technology and novel treatment methods.

This path-breaking finding crossed cultural barriers, and included all levels of specialized care, such as psychiatric and surgical specialists, and not just family physicians.

Sir Denis Pereira Gray, of St Leonard's Practice, commented that patients have always felt the importance of seeing a particular doctor and especially the vital role of communication between physician and patient. However, he went on to add:

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'."

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