Health care providers and system administrators are in the midst of a paradigm shift; moving from paternalism toward an egalitarian approach. For patient centred care to occur, health care providers must prioritize patient needs; provide information regarding treatments while taking patient preferences and expectations into account. While there is literature regarding patient centredness, there is less information from the patient perspective about the experience of being a patient and the influence on behaviour. Using phenomenological research methods and the theory of planned behaviour as a theoretical framework, this study addressed the questions, a) what is the essence of being a primary health care patient, and b) what influence do beliefs, attitudes, and experience have on people’s behaviour as a patient? Nineteen individuals participated. Seven shared elements of being a primary health care patient were identified and contributed to the development of a composite vignette. The patient experience was a socially oriented, governed and reinforced cyclical process. Patients described themselves as actively engaged in their health care – “working the system” to get what they needed, when they needed it. Patients changed their beliefs, attitudes and behaviour as a result of experiences with their physicians, and their perceived success or failure in acquiring the best health care possible. Being a patient was not a single, observable behaviour, but rather a set of contextually dependent strategies patients’ directed at the specific goal of getting the best healthcare possible. The theory of planned behaviour was unsuitable for understanding patients’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.

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