Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tales From Residency: Phone Messages

In residency, one of our jobs on the Pain rotation was to return messages from patients. It was one of those really, horrible jobs that everyone hated. Every phone message I returned went exactly the same:

Message: Patient would like to speak with you, they have question.

Me: "Hello, is this John Smith?"

Patient: "Yes."

Me: "Hi, this is Dr. Fizzy. I'm calling from the Pain Clinic."

Patient: "Oh."

[long pause]

Me: I'm returning your call."

Patient: "Okay."

[long pause]

Me: "Do you have a question for us??"

Seriously, throw me a bone here people....

And then when they'd finally come up with a question, it was always either wanting narcotics or asking, "Why am I scheduled to see you?"

Then another gem: a woman who asked us to call back with her lab results.

Me: "This is Dr. Fizzy from the Pain Clinic. You called us about your blood test results."

Patient: "I'm busy now. Can you call me back in an hour?"

Me: "No."

Maybe I'm biased but if I had some blood test results pending and the doctor was nice enough to honor my request to call me back the same day, I wouldn't tell them to call back in an hour no matter how "busy" I was. That was incredibly rude, I thought. (All the results were normal.)


  1. No offense Fizzy, but you have no idea what the woman was doing that made her too busy to talk to you. Perhaps she had been in the shower and was dripping, naked, and shivering in the middle of her living room. Perhaps she was driving. Perhaps she was in a meeting with her boss who would not have understood if she needed step out for a few minutes. Perhaps she was in public and wanted some privacy when she got her results.

    Doctors are REALLY bad at understanding that other people besides them can be busy too. I think it's pretty arrogant, actually.

  2. OMDG - What you're saying is certainly possible, but in my experience a lot of patients are inconsiderate of doctors and their time regardless of what they're doing. I often have patients who don't stop watching tv, checking Facebook, sending a text, etc. when I go into their rooms to see them until I make a point of asking them to stop. And some will even ask me if I can come back so that they can finish watching their show. If the patient had been in the middle of something that legitimately kept her from talking to Fizzy, she could've simply explained the situation and I'm sure Fizzy would've been much more understanding than when she was just told "I'm busy".

  3. I don't buy it. I've had important conversations while dripping wet, driving, having to step out of a meeting. If whatever she was doiong was so crucially important, why did she answer the phone?? She should have given us permission to leave a detailed message.

    I don't think it's arrogant b/c I personally would never ever do that to ANY professional in ANY field who was considerate to return my call. Also b/c I'm afraid they won't call back again.

    Sometimes I had about 20 messages to return. Can you imagine if half those people said to me, "Too busy, call back." I'd be spending half my day returning phone messages.

  4. you mean there are some doctors who call personally with lab results? I've always gotten a nurse who can't answer my questions...

  5. Really Fizzy? I've recently experienced several situations where the nurse or doctor has called me back and I've been doing something (walking to school, having a meeting, sitting at my desk which is in a public area, about to race out the door, driving) that does not enable me to stop, listen, and write down instructions, all of which I think are pretty important when you're getting results from the doctor. Maybe she answered the phone because she didn't recognize the number on caller ID. Some phone calls can be handled while doing something else. Others cannot. Getting results from the doctor is one type of phone call that requires privacy and something to write on. If you don't have those things then you run the risk of forgetting something important. Then what are you going to do, Fizzy? Complain that the patient is non-compliant?

    Maybe she is just inconsiderate. I don't doubt that patients can be rude and inconsiderate of your time as well, but it makes me sad that this was both yours and SD's immediate assumption. Maybe the patient should get the benefit of the doubt anyway, at least until it becomes a pattern of behavior.

    In any case, who cares if 1/2 your patients require another call back. Sometimes shit happens and you can't get as much work done as you'd hoped. There have been days at previous jobs where I spent the entire day on the phone calling people back -- and then I had to stay late to do the rest of my work. It sucks, but then that's why they call it work.

  6. OMDG: Recently I was driving home in the evening and I got a callback from a doctor's office on a patient. So it was from a nurse and it wasn't even on ME. I immediately pulled over to talk to the nurse, mostly b/c I knew if I didn't, I'd never hear from them again.

    On other occasions, I've had lab results pending and gave them permission to leave a message with my results.

    You may disagree with me, but I practice what I preach.

  7. Congratulations to you for pulling over. It's a little hard to "pull over" when you're a mile out from your house on a walk with the dog, have no pen, and your dog suddenly sees a squirrel and goes for it, yanking your arm off, possibly flinging the phone into oncoming traffic (not that I would know anything about this).

    Perhaps I should keep in mind that if I ever see you as my doctor, if I call for results, I should immediately suspend all activities that might prevent me from answering my phone in a private place until I hear back. If your practice is like most I've seen, I should only have to sit on my couch for 24 hours or so.

  8. I have to say, as someone working at a rape crisis center when we do follow up calls, our, well my frst question is always, "Is this an okay time to talk?" We just never know if it's okay to talk about the rape or if they're in a place to do so. I understand there are those patients who SD mentioned, but that isn't the case with everyone. Plus you just never know how their last doctor was so they expect others to be that way. You never know who might have been having a panic attack since getting the blood test over the results, etc. I just like to think of the good in people. I'm not trying to sound like a bad person here or like I am attacking anyone, I've just learned some things from working as a rape crisis center and doing our follow up calls after the hospital visit. I've had several people ask me to call them back simply because they weren't ready to talk about it, and they need to be mentally ready for to hear some things.

  9. I'm agreeing with OMDG, that was incredibly rude. I've been there in a situation before where I really am too busy, or not in a good situation to hear about test results. Also, I come from the mindset that customer service is important, whether it's a clothing store or a doctor clinic.

  10. If people are too busy to answer the phone, then they shouldn't answer the phone...or they need to invest in a bluetooth earpiece. If someone goes to the trouble of answering a phone call and listening to the person on the other end introduce themselves, they can give a quick explanation like "sorry being eaten alive, can't talk" or save themselves 20-30 seconds by not answering.

  11. I agree with Mingle. If someone answers the phone, then they are telling me they are not too busy to talk for a minute. If she really felt like she was going to be too busy to talk that day, she shouldn't have requested we call her back about non-urgent results, or else told us to leave a message. It's not like this was a cancer diagnosis or something about rape. It was, like, a calcium level or something.

    The bottom line is this: We all know it's hard to get a doctor's office to call you back at all about a non-urgent issue. I know it better than a lot of people, because I call a lot of doctors offices on behalf of my patients. How many doctors do you think would actually call back again after getting a response like I did? None. That message would have gone on the bottom of a really long queue, or more likely, in the trash. That's just reality.

  12. It doesn't matter who it is, when somebody calls you as per your request, and you're not in a position to take the call, you should offer to call *them* back, not ask them to call you back. It's common courtesy.

  13. I agree with dorkus. If you ask someone to call you back, and then you're busy (for whatever reason) when they call, you then call them back, not ask them to call you in 15 min/an hour.

    It's called 'phone tag' for a reason. It's not called 'phone poke.'

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