Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 26, Issue 6, pp 588–594 | Cite as

A Cohort Study Assessing Difficult Patient Encounters in a Walk-In Primary Care Clinic, Predictors and Outcomes

  • Sherri A. Hinchey
  • Jeffrey L. JacksonEmail author
Original Research



Previous studies have found that up to 15% of clinical encounters are experienced as difficult by clinicians.


Explore patient and physician characteristics associated with being considered “difficult” and assess the impact on patient outcomes.


Prospective cohort study.


Seven hundred fifty adults presenting to a primary care walk-in clinic with a physical symptom.

Main Measures

Pre-visit surveys assessed symptom characteristics, expectations, functional status (Medical Outcome Study SF-6) and the presence of mental disorders [Primary Care Evaluation of Mental Disorders, (PRIME-MD)]. Post-visit surveys assessed satisfaction (Rand-9), unmet expectations and trust. Two-week assessment included symptom outcome (gone, better, same, worse), functional status and satisfaction. After each visit, clinicians rated encounter difficulty using the Difficult Doctor-Patient Relationship Questionnaire (DDPRQ). Clinicians also completed the Physician’s Belief Scale, a measure of psychosocial orientation.

Key Results

Among the 750 subjects, 133 (17.8%) were perceived as difficult. “Difficult” patients were less likely to fully trust (RR = 0.88, 95% CI: 0.77–0.99) or be fully satisfied (RR = 0.78, 95% CI: 0.62–0.98) with their clinician, and were more likely to have worsening of symptoms at 2 weeks (RR = 0.75, 95% CI: 0.57–0.97). Patients involved in “difficult encounters” had more than five symptoms (RR = 1.8, 95% CI: 1.3–2.3), endorsed recent stress (RR = 1.9, 95% CI: 1.4–3.2) and had a depressive or anxiety disorder (RR = 2.3, 95% CI: 1.3–4.2). Physicians involved in difficult encounters were less experienced (12 years vs. 9 years, p = 0.0002) and had worse psychosocial orientation scores (77 vs. 67, p < 0.005).


Both patient and physician characteristics are associated with “difficult” encounters, and patients involved in such encounters have worse short-term outcomes.


Symptom Outcome Structural Equation Modeling Model Poor Functional Status Somatization Disorder Unmet Expectation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and should not be construed, in any way, to represent those of the US Army, the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Conflict of Interest

None disclosed.


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.General Medicine DivisionTripler Army Medical CenterHonoluluUSA
  2. 2.General Medicine DivisionZablocki VA Medical CenterMilwaukeeUSA
  3. 3.Dept of MedicineMilwaukeeUSA

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