The majority of Americans say they have good relationships with their physicians, according to a nationwide Washington Post-ABC News public opinion poll. Overall, they place a great deal of trust in their doctor's medical judgment -- despite the rising number of medical malpractice cases and perceived new wariness between doctor and patient.
Most Americans also believe that doctors as a group deserve at least "a fair amount" of respect for being "knowledgeable and helpful members of society," the poll suggests.
Yet when it comes to paying doctors, opinion is sharply divided: slightly fewer than half of those polled think that physicians make too much money, while about half think that compensation for doctors "is about right."
Eight out of 10 people have a family or personal physician, according to the telephone poll of 1,184 randomly selected people, conducted last month. Respondents who said they have a family or personal physician see this doctor regularly, usually at least once a year.
Disparities emerge, however, between blacks and whites. Only 65 percent of blacks polled said they have a regular family or personal physician, compared with 82 percent of whites.
In addition, women are slightly more likely than men (regardless of race, income, education, geographic region or age) to have a personal or family doctor, perhaps reflecting the well-documented fact that women seek medical treatment more often than men. Overall, 84 percent of women said they have a family doctor, compared with 74 percent of men.
Age also increases the likelihood of seeing one doctor on a regular basis: 71 percent of those age 18 to 30 had a personal physician, compared with 80 percent of those age 31 to 44, 84 percent of those age 45 to 60 and 86 percent of those 61 and older.
The poll suggests that income and location also help dictate whether an individual will have a regular family or personal physician. Slightly more middle-income than lower-income people have personal physicians, while more than 80 percent of residents of small towns and rural areas see personal or family doctors, compared with just 70 percent of people living in large cities and suburbs.
The reason why some people do not have a family or personal physician varies a great deal, the poll suggests. Some 13 percent of people without their own doctor said that they had recently moved and had not yet found one. Often these were people under the age of 45, who had completed some college, and currently earn $12,000 to $19,900 annually.
Another 17 percent of people participate in health plans, such as prepaid health maintenance organizations (HMOs). These people said that they do not have a personal physician because their health plans do not assign them to a specific doctor.
Finally, high health care costs keep 9 percent of people from going to a physician of their own, the poll shows. Those most likely to report cost as a stumbling block to care earned the least -- usually less than $12,000 annually -- and tended to live in large cities.
As for the stereotype of the doctor who doesn't spend enough time with patients, the majority of those polled disagreed with that image. Only 15 percent said that "the doctor didn't spend enough time with me." Women are slightly more likely to feel this way about their doctors than men.
Respondents also indicated that they did not have a problem getting appointments with their physicians, that they had little trouble understanding what doctors tell them and that they rarely feel a physician's medical treatment is inappropriate or wrong.
What does bother many people, the poll indicates, are long waiting times in the doctor's office. About four of every 10 people polled said that they have had to wait too long. This problem was most frequently reported by people younger than 44 years old.
Cost is also troublesome to about 40 percent of Americans, the poll suggests. Slightly more than one third of respondents (regardless of income, age, race or sex) said they have had a "problem" with how much a physician charges.
Yet price does not seem to affect the relationship between patient and doctor. More than 90 percent of those polled said they consider their relationship with their physician to be at least "good." Some 41 percent rated it as "excellent."
This held true regardless of income, age, sex or education. However, black Americans, senior citizens -- those 61 years and above -- and men and women age 18 to 30 are slightly more apt to rate their doctors as "excellent" than other groups are.
Americans appear to have great confidence in their personal physicians. Almost two of every three respondents reported placing "a great deal" of trust in their doctor's medical judgment. Yet a third of those polled said they only place "a fair amount" of trust in their doctor's medical decisions.
Thirty percent of those without a personal or family physician said they trusted a doctor's medical judgment "a great deal," while 55 percent report trusting it at least "a fair amount." These feelings are even more widely held among those 61 years and older, among blacks and among women.
Doctors are also highly respected. Almost half of those polled hold "a great deal of respect for physicians for being knowledgeable and helpful members of society." About the same number felt a "fair amount of respect," for how doctors perform, while only 5 percent of those polled felt "not much" or "little" respect.
The majority of physicians who receive this high vote of confidence are men practicing solo or in groups, the poll indicates. Only 6 percent of those people polled have a female physician, despite the fact that some 13 percent of practicing doctors are women, according to 1983 American Medical Association figures. Women are slightly more likely to see a female physician than men: 8 percent of the women polled see a female doctor, compared with 4 percent of men. Younger age groups, from 18 to 44 years old, are also slightly more likely to see a female physician than senior citizens.
Despite a proliferation of prepaid health plans such as HMOs, more than 90 percent of those polled go to a doctor who practices in a solo or group practice. In the West and Midwest, group practices were slightly more common.
As for the hotly debated topic of physician's fees, about half -- some 47 percent -- think that physicians "make too much money," the poll suggests. Another 49 percent believe that doctors receive "about the right" amount of money for their services, while 2 percent of those polled thought that physicians receive too little.
Employer health insurance pays the doctor bills for most Americans, the poll indicates. More than half of the respondents had this kind of coverage.
Twenty percent of those polled have no health insurance and pay for medical care "mostly" out of their own pockets. Another 12 percent buy their own health insurance, and 12 percent are covered by government assistance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
No matter how they pay for health care, however, Americans seem to go to the doctor frequently, the poll suggests. More than 80 percent of those people with a personal physician and 60 percent of those without a personal doctor said they see a physician at least once a year.