Just about everyone likes their doctor. So why do most think our health care system is doomed?

October 20, 2012

The nonprofit Physicians Foundation recently released a survey of more than 2,000 Americans who assessed the state of our health care system, from the patient's point of view. 

There were essentially two big takeaways: People are incredibly enthusiastic about their primary care doctors. And they are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of medicine. 

Seventy-nine percent of those who had visited the doctor in the past year said they were "satisfied" or "extremely satisfied" with their experience. One in five said they were "somewhat satisfied." A paltry 1 percent reported not being satisfied at all.

Keep in mind, this is a survey about doctors being conducted by a group that represents doctors. It wouldn't be a huge surprise for it to find a positive result about doctors. At the same time, this does align with separate research showing that doctors in America tend to have a pretty high level of public trust. Seventy percent of Americans in one survey rank doctors "high" or "very high" in terms of honesty and adhering to ethical standards.

That's the vantage point from the doctor's office. When the Physicians Foundation survey zoomed out, it found a much more negative take on health care in the United States. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed thought the health care system was headed in a negative direction. Only about one in five of those surveyed thought that our health care system was headed in a positive direction.

"Obviously with the Affordable Care Act legislation, there's a lot of pro and con about the direction we're headed in," says Physicians Foundation chief executive Tim Norbeck. 

What accounts for the negative opinions when Americans are pretty happy with their doctors right now? Norbeck thinks part of it has to do with the health reform law. The survey found that more respondents had a negative view of the legislation than those who had a positive view.

The most recent Kaiser Family Foundation Tracking Poll, it's worth noting, had the opposite finding: Slightly more Americans thought the law would improve health care than those who thought it would worsen quality.

Norbeck attributes part of the split to the issues that the media tends to focus on, the shortage of providers or rising health care costs. "People have read about the physician shortage, and maybe they like their doctor but have had to wait a few weeks to see them," he says. "I think whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you read those things, and they influence your opinion."

The last explanation might have nothing to do with health care at all. Other polls, on completely different subjects, tend to show that we have more positive feelings about our immediate environment than about an overall system. Voters like their own representatives while disliking Congress. They think the local economy is humming along just fine - while the rest of the country is tanking. We could be seeing a similar result for doctors: We like the physician who keeps us healthy, while being much less enthusiastic about the health care system as a whole.

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