Background and objectives: Trust and satisfaction in the physician-patient relationship is the cornerstone of family medicine. Today, computers are playing an increasingly prominent role in the delivery of health care, yet recent data detailing their effect on the physician-patient relationship are limited. For physicians to "first do no harm," it is critical to determine that computers used at the point of care do not decrease patient satisfaction, because this is a good proxy for the physician-patient relationship. This study assessed patients' views of computer use and its effect on patient satisfaction in a family medicine clinic before and after implementation of an electronic environment developed by our institution.
Methods: A survey was mailed to patients who had been evaluated at a family medicine clinic for hypertension, high blood pressure without hypertension, or hyperlipidemia. These diseases were selected because they are common and require strong physician-patient relationships for successful treatment. The survey assessed patients' overall satisfaction with health care received at the clinic and their opinions about how their physician's computer use affected their visit. This survey was compared with a survey done in 1995 at the same clinic, before adoption of the electronic environment.
Results: A total of 478 patients were enrolled in the study; 304 (63.6%) of these returned surveys. A majority of the patients (74.6%) thought that the computer had an overall positive impact on the quality of care provided. There was a positive association between a physician's computer skills, as rated by patients, and the patients' satisfaction with the computer's effect on the visit. There were no differences in overall satisfaction between the 1995 survey and the current survey.
Conclusions: This study shows that physician competence with computers plays an important role in patient satisfaction and that computers can be integrated into the office visit without a detrimental effect on patient satisfaction. Surprisingly, patient familiarity with computers was shown to have a slight negative correlation with patient satisfaction. These findings are significant in view of research indicating that compliance, health outcomes, perception of physician competence, and malpractice suits are all related to physicians' interpersonal skills and patient satisfaction.