Getting to "no": strategies primary care physicians use to deny patient requests

Arch Intern Med. 2010 Feb 22;170(4):381-8. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.533.


Background: Physicians need strategies for addressing patient requests for medically inappropriate tests and treatments. We examined communication processes that physicians use to deal with patient requests of questionable appropriateness.

Methods: Data come from audio-recorded visits and postvisit questionnaires of standardized patient visits to primary care offices in Sacramento and San Francisco, California, and Rochester, New York, from May 2003 to May 2004. Investigators performed an iterative review of visit transcripts in which patients requested, but did not receive, an antidepressant prescription. Measurements include qualitative analysis of strategies for communicating request denial. The relationship between strategies and satisfaction reports in postvisit questionnaires was examined using the Fisher exact test.

Results: Standardized patients requested antidepressants in 199 visits; the antidepressants were not prescribed in 88 visits (44%), 84 of which were available for analysis. In 53 of 84 visits (63%), physicians used 1 or more of the following 3 strategies that explicitly incorporated the patient perspective: (1) exploring the context of the request, (2) referring to a mental health professional, and (3) offering an alternative diagnosis. Twenty-six visits (31%) involved emphasis on biomedical approaches: prescribing a sleep aid or ordering a diagnostic workup. In 5 visits (6%), physicians rejected the request outright. Standardized patients reported significantly higher visit satisfaction when approaches relying on the patient perspective were used to deny the request (P = .001).

Conclusions: Strategies for saying no may be used to communicate appropriate care plans, to reduce provision of medically inappropriate services, and to preserve the physician-patient relationship. These findings should be considered in the context of physician education and training in light of increasing health care costs.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care*
  • Patient Education as Topic / organization & administration*
  • Patient Simulation
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Unnecessary Procedures*


  • Antidepressive Agents