Keeping the same doctor rather than switching between different ones has a noticeable effect on mortality rates, according to a comprehensive look at 22 different studies published since 2010.
It’s technically known as continuity of care, and previous research has suggested benefits can include fewer hospital admissions and a higher adoption of vaccination programmes for patients. Now we can add a lower risk of death to that list.
The researchers found the same trend across several studies from different countries, and between different types of doctors – whether general practitioners or specialists.
The finding underlines the importance of patients being able to get the doctor they want.
“Continuity of care happens when a patient and a doctor see each other repeatedly and get to know each other,” says one of the researchers, Philip Evans from the University of Exeter. “This leads to better communication, patient satisfaction, adherence to medical advice and much lower use of hospital services.”
“As medical technology and new treatments dominate the medical news, the human aspect of medical practice has been neglected. Our study shows it is potentially life-saving and should be prioritised.”
Of the 22 studies examined, 18 showed a positive link between sticking with the same doctor and living longer – though they all differed in their scope, and the way data was collected and presented.
A total of nine different countries were covered by the 22 studies, and the median number of individuals across them all was 16,855. Most of the studies (20 out of 22) looked at all-cause mortality.
There are a few limitations to bear in mind though: not all of the studies factored in the influence of other variables like age, gender, or whether someone smoked or not. It’s also true that people who are in worse health for a longer time usually end up seeing more doctors as a matter of course.
Still, considering the links that other studies have found between continuity of care and improved health, and the wide scope of this new research, it seems a fair conclusion that keeping up a good relationship with the same doctor can lower death rates too.
“Basically we are saying that at a time when the emphasis in the reports in the press are all about new machines and new technology, that this is an article that shows the human side of medicine is still very important,” one of the team, Sir Denis Pereira Gray from St Leonard’s Practice in the UK, told the Guardian.
The researchers now want to see further studies looking at the association they’ve uncovered, and are keen to make sure the “human side of medicine” doesn’t get forgotten about in the midst of many exciting technical innovations.
According to the team, a strong relationship between doctors and patients means doctors become more knowledgeable about the people they’re seeing, and patients become more comfortable about opening up.
As a result, treatment ends up being more personalised and patients become more likely to take the advice they’re given.
“Patients have long known that it matters which doctor they see and how well they can communicate with them,” says Gray.
“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.”
The research has been published in BMJ Open.