Intended for healthcare professionals


Can patients assess the quality of health care?

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 29 June 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:1
  1. Angela Coulter, chief executive (angela.coulter{at}
  1. Picker Institute Europe, King's Mead House, Oxford OX1 1RX

    Patients' surveys should ask about real experiences of medical care

    Patient feedback surveys are increasingly seen as a key component of monitoring and improving the quality of health care.1 Since 2002, all NHS trusts in England have been required to survey a sample of their patients on an annual basis and report the results to their regulator, the Healthcare Commission. General practitioners throughout the United Kingdom can earn extra contractual points and more money if they implement patient surveys. Patients' feedback on individual doctors has been advocated for practice accreditation, clinical governance, assessment of trainees, appraisal, and revalidation. But can patients' really make reliable judgments on the quality of health care?

    In this week's BMJ Rao and colleagues point to some potential problems, particularly with regard to patients' assessment of the technical quality of care.2 Using a British adaptation of a US patient questionnaire (the general practice assessment survey (GPAS)3), they found no correlation between patients' evaluations of the quality of technical care and evidence based indicators drawn from a separate review of case records. They conclude that patients' assessments are not a reliable basis for assessing the technical quality of care. Are they right?

    Well, yes and no. They are right to dismiss the notion that patients' questionnaires could be used as the sole measure of quality of clinical practice, but has anyone seriously suggested this? They are probably also correct to point to the limitations of the technical quality domain of the GPAS questionnaire, which uses a rating scale to assess patients' perceptions of doctors' medical knowledge, thoroughness of physical examination, and diagnostic and prescribing skills. The GPAS questionnaire has now been withdrawn from the website of the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre (, and its replacement, the general practice assessment questionnaire(GPAQ), does not attempt to assess technical quality. However, it is a generalisation too far to suggest that patients are unable to assess the quality of care they receive, even technical quality.

    Most patients prefer doctors who have excellent communication skills, but they also want to be assured that their doctor has sound, up to date, technical skills.4 Occasionally patients conflate the two, which possibly explains why some patients of Dr Harold Shipman, the UK general practitioner who murdered more than 200 of his patients, remained loyal to him. But both attributes are viewed by patients and the public as equally important.

    A recent public survey carried out for the General Medical Council found that giving good advice and treatment was the factor that most influenced people's confidence in doctors (rated as very important by nine out of 10 respondents), followed closely by good communication skills.5 Other factors that were highly rated included maintaining confidentiality, respecting patients' dignity, and involving them in treatment decisions.

    Well designed questionnaires for patients could contribute usefully to an assessment of both the technical competence and interpersonal skills of doctors. If these surveys are to play a role in quality improvement, they should provide clear factual results that prompt follow-up actions. Knowing that, say, 20% of your patients gave you a low rating for technical skills doesn't give you a clear view of what you need to do to improve things, but receiving feedback on the proportion of your elderly patients who, for example, would have liked a flu vaccination but were not offered one gives a much more useful guide to deficiencies in performance. Rao and colleagues had to search clinical records manually for this information where patient records were not computerised, but could just as easily have used a patient survey.

    The type of evaluative or rating-style question that was used to assess technical skills in the GPAS questionnaire is not useful for this purpose. It is difficult enough for a doctor's peers to give them a reliable rating, but well nigh impossible for a patient with no clinical training. Instead of asking patients to rate their care using general evaluation categories (such as excellent, very good, good, fair, poor), it is better to ask them to report in detail on their experiences of clinical care during a particular consultation (for instance, “Were you given information about any side effects of your medicine?”), a specific episode of care (“Were you given a plan to help you manage your diabetes at home?”), or over a specified period (“Have you had your blood pressure checked in the past 12 months?”). These types of questions are designed to elicit reports on what actually occurred, rather than the patient's evaluation of what occurred, and they produce more reliable results.

    Simply giving doctors the results of patients' feedback does not seem to be effective for instigating change.6 7 However, in some parts of the US integrating patients' feedback into educational programmes with the results made available to the public has yielded improvements in doctors' performance.812 But will doctors elsewhere have the courage to publish their patient survey results?


    • Competing interests Picker Institute Europe gains part of its income from designing and implementing patient surveys. AC is a member of the BMJ's editorial advisory board.

    • See Papers p 19


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