Unmet Expectations for Care and the Patient-physician Relationship


Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Bell: Department of Communication, One Shields Avenue, U.C. Davis, Davis, CA 95616 (e-mail: rabell@ucdavis.edu).


OBJECTIVE: To profile patients likely to have unmet expectations for care, examine the effects of such expectations, and investigate how physicians' responses to patients' requests affect the development of unfulfilled expectations.

DESIGN: Patient and physician questionnaires were administered before and after outpatient visits. A follow-up telephone survey was administered 2 weeks post visit.

SETTING: The offices of 45 family practice, internal medicine, and cardiology physicians.

PATIENTS: Nine hundred nine adults reporting a health problem or concern.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: Before their visits, patients rated their general health and trust in the index physician. After the visit, patients reported upon 8 types of unmet expectations and any request they made. Two weeks thereafter, patients rated their visit satisfaction, improvement, and intention to adhere to the physician's advice. They also reported any postvisit health system contacts. Overall, 11.6% of patients reported ≥1 unmet expectation. Visits in which a patient held an unmet expectation were rated by physicians as less satisfying and more effortful. At follow-up, patients who perceived an unmet expectation for care also reported less satisfaction with their visits, less improvement, and weaker intentions to adhere. Patients with an unmet expectation related to clinical resource allocation had more postvisit health system contacts. Unmet expectations were typically reported by a patient whose request for a resource was not fulfilled.

CONCLUSIONS: Unmet expectations adversely affect patients and physicians alike. Physicians' nonfulfillment of patients' requests plays a significant role in patients' beliefs that their physicians did not meet their expectations for care.