Background The study was part of a nationwide evaluation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in Swiss primary care. The aim of the study was to compare patient-physician relationships and the respective patient-reported relief of symptoms between CAM and conventional primary care (COM). Methods A comparative observational study in Swiss primary care with written survey completed by patients who visited a GP one month earlier. 6133 patients older than 16 years of 170 certified CAM physicians, of 77 non-certified CAM physicians and of 71 conventional physicians were included. Patients completed a questionnaire aimed at symptom relief, patient satisfaction, fulfilment of expectations, and quality of patient-physician interaction (EUROPEP questionnaire). Results CAM physicians treated significantly more patients with chronic conditions than COM physicians. CAM Patients had significant higher healing expectations than COM patients. General patient satisfaction was significantly higher in CAM patients, although patient-reported symptom relief was significantly poorer. The quality of patient-physician communication was rated significantly better in CAM patients. Conclusions The study shows better patient-reported outcomes of CAM in comparison to COM in Swiss primary care, which is related to higher patient satisfaction due to better patient-physician communication of CAM physicians. More effective communication patterns of these physicians may play an important role in allowing patients to maintain more positive outcome expectations. The findings should promote formative efforts in conventional primary care to improve communication skills in order to reach the same levels of favourable patient outcomes.