Original Research

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 21-27

First online:

How Well Do Doctors Know their Patients? Factors Affecting Physician Understanding of Patients’ Health Beliefs

  • Richard L. StreetJrAffiliated withDepartment of Communication, Texas A&M UniversityThe Houston Center for Quality of Care and Utilization Studies and Baylor College of Medicine at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center Email author 
  • , Paul HaidetAffiliated withThe Office of Medical Education and the Department of Medicine, The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine

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An important feature of patient-centered care is physician understanding of their patients’ health beliefs and values.


Determine physicians’ awareness of patients’ health beliefs as well as communication, relationship, and demographic factors associated with better physician understanding of patients’ illness perspectives.


Cross-sectional, observational study.


A convenience sample of 207 patients and 29 primary care physicians from 10 outpatient clinics.


After their consultation, patients and physicians independently completed the CONNECT instrument, a measure that assesses beliefs about the degree to which the patient’s condition has a biological cause, is the patient’s fault, is one the patient can control, has meaning for the patient, can be treated with natural remedies, and patient preferences for a partnership with the physician. Physicians completed the measure again on how they thought the patient responded. Active patient participation (frequency of questions, concerns, acts of assertiveness) was coded from audio-recordings of the consultations. Physicians’ answers for how they thought the patient responded to the health belief measure were compared to their patients’ actual responses. Degree of physician understanding of patients’ health beliefs was computed as the absolute difference between patients’ health beliefs and physicians’ perception of patients’ health beliefs.


Physicians’ perceptions of their patients’ health beliefs differed significantly (P < 0.001) from patients’ actual beliefs. Physicians also thought patients’ beliefs were more aligned with their own. Physicians had a better understanding of the degree to which patients believed their health conditions had personal meaning (p = 0.001), would benefit from natural remedies (p = 0.049), were conditions the patient could control (p = 0.001), and wanted a partnership with the doctor (p = 0.014) when patients more often asked questions, expressed concerns, and stated their opinions. Physicians were poorer judges of patients’ beliefs when patients were African-American (desire for partnership) (p = 0.013), Hispanic (meaning) (p = 0.075), or of a different race (sense of control) (p = 0.024).


Physicians were not good judges of patient’s health beliefs, but had a substantially better understanding when patients more actively participated in the consultation. Strategies for increasing physicians’ awareness of patients’ health beliefs include preconsultation assessment of patients’ beliefs, implementing culturally appropriate patient activation programs, and greater use of partnership-building to encourage active patient participation.


physician-patient relationship racial concordance patient-centered communication patient participation disparities