Published on April 6, 2021

The View from my Seat

Hello, is this a human doctor or just a voice?

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

How many times have you heard these dreaded recorded words when calling your doctor’s office?

“Please listen carefully because our menu has changed.”

If you have health issues as I do, you know that this introductory message means chances of speaking to a real human in your doctor’s office in the near future are slim.

The rest of the recorded message typically goes like this:

“If this is an emergency, please call 911.

If you are a physician, please press 1.

If you want to schedule, change or cancel an appointment, please press 2.

If you want a refill, please press 3.

For lab test results, please press 4.”

All this sounds organized and efficient. But we know better.

In reality, communication with doctors’ offices by phone is difficult. You can leave all the messages you want on automated systems, but all you are likely to get in return is frustration. You seldom get a callback as fast as you want … or need.

In fairness, it is not all the fault of doctors or their staffs.

Mary Pat Whaley, a physician herself, says calls have increased at a pace that has overwhelmed doctors’ offices.

Without automated systems, staff would spend their time answering the phone, not helping patients.
Whaley says the primary culprit driving the higher call volume is the increasing number of medicines being prescribed.

The number of prescriptions dispensed in the U.S. increased from 3.95 billion in 2009 to 4.22 billion in 2019.

The increase means a doctor’s office receives more refill requests from patients and pharmacies, more calls from people with questions about their prescription and, yes, more callbacks from patients asking to change their prescriptions once they discover the price.

Whaley also says that in these tough economic times, many patients want medical advice over the phone in hopes of avoiding the co-pays or high deductibles that come with office visits.

I had been thinking about doing a column on automated phone systems in doctors’ offices for months, but I wasn’t moved to actually write about it until I struggled to get a simple lab test.

On a recent Wednesday morning, I was advised I needed a urinalysis. I was told by the doctor’s office that the form requesting the test had already been sent to a lab near my home.

No problem … so far. However, I went to the lab that afternoon and was told no order had been received.

The next day – Thursday - I called the doctor’s office. Unable to connect with a real person, I left a message and went back to the lab, assuming there was an order by now. I was wrong. Still no order.

I left another message at the doctor’s office. A nice lady called me back late Thursday afternoon and said they had straightened things out. The order had been sent.

Bright and early Friday morning I went for my lab test. Things hadn’t been straightened out. There was an order, but for the wrong test.

I made another call to a recorded message.

Fortunately, the lab was open Saturday, and the test was finally completed.

I am convinced that we could have gotten this done on Day 1 had I been able to speak directly to someone at either the doctor’s office or the lab.

While I am venting, let me share something that I am afraid may be a sign of things to come.

The lab had no receptionist. There was only a sign directing patients to fill out a form on a computer.

During my four trips to the lab, I had no one asking if I needed any help. I had no one to scream at.
Perhaps, had there been a receptionist, he or she might have been aware of my four-day ordeal and would have tried to help out.

The computer didn’t seem to care.

So, dutifully, each day I would fill out the computer form and wait an hour or so for a lab technician to poke her head into the waiting room and call my name … only to tell me there was no proper order.

As I write this column, it has been a week since the test was ordered.

I still don’t have results. I would call … aw, to heck with it.

I am just glad the test is for nothing too serious.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)