Physicians, Heal Thy Phones

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By Mary Kay O'Grady

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"If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room." Sound familiar? It's the message you get when you call most doctors. It usually precedes or follows upwards of half a dozen other choices. Sometimes none of them put you in touch with a live person - you have to "do your time" first. I like to call the Appointment Slapdown System or A.S.S.

Let me say I have the utmost respect for physicians. I don't think they make a ton of money given their education and skill, and I understand that they have had to reduce their patient load because they have to put everything into a computer and deal with a ton of regulations and paperwork from Medicare and insurance companies.

We senior citizens typically have several doctors, alas, and depending on our reason for calling a doctor, we should be prepared to either sit down with a crossword puzzle or put the speaker phone on while we do the dishes. (That assumes you know how to turn the speaker on and off. I only do it by accident.)

I hate it, but I have a few chronic conditions which require medical inattention - oops, attention - more often than I'd like. This is my personal odyssey with doctors and phone communication.

About five years ago I settled on a wonderful doctor at Northwestern after leaving a doctor at Rush because of her lousy phone and office service. One day I called the Northwestern doc because I was having a hard time breathing and the receptionist told me to come right in. I asked my daughter to drive me, but by the time we got to the expressway, I knew we had to head for Oak Park Hospital. There I was hospitalized for four days. Silly me, I expected that the Northwestern doc might call and check on what happened to me, but it didn't happen.

As it turns out, at Oak Park I was treated by a wonderful doctor. I switched to him and was shocked to find that he returned calls within five minutes and told me that if he didn't, I should call right back. He always had room to see me the same day and I never minded having my visits interrupted when he returned other calls. However, after several years, I realized that his personal touch didn't include computerized records. Between my failing memory and his - he never seemed to remember I was allergic to penicillins nor did he have a record of which treatments had worked and which had not - it seemed too risky. I do miss our discussions of the Middle East, drug company greed and our respective families.

So I switched to my daughter's doctor at Northwestern. Sometimes when a sinus/asthma attack comes on, I'm so sick I actually have to cancel an appointment on the day I have it. They would bill me $50, not covered by insurance. I never talked to the doctor on the phone and rarely to his nurse. The last straw was a day when I was too sick to make it there, but knew I needed an antibiotic. I called to cancel the appointment and request a prescription. I couldn't get through and kept trying - three or four times. The last time, after I was on hold for twenty minutes, I asked my daughter to call in; she was on hold for fifteen minutes before she gave up. When I finally got through I started crying and was told the nurse would call me back. She did - the next day. I was billed $50.

Meanwhile I see another doc at Oak Park Hospital about once a year for a check on one of her specialties. They too have what I call an A.S.S. with ten-to-fifteen minute waits the norm. I complained to her once and she understood perfectly. Said she can't get through either when she calls in. Say what?

I recently switched to an internist who is connected to Loyola. Lovely man, lovely staff - he once returned a call at 8:30 at night. Then they switched to an A.S.S system. The next time I saw him I told him I had tried four times to get through when I was having blurry vision. He said he hates the new system, too. So who's in charge?

The frustration is that all the fine physicians I see tell me to just call if I get worse or have a problem. It's a pretty meaningless statement. Maybe we should all start calling 911 and catching a ride to the emergency room. I'm guessing the docs there will be able to get through to our regular docs. No, that would be irresponsible - and expensive. Instead, let's just punch in the number that says we're another doctor calling.

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