Here's A Place To Begin Reforming Health Care: A Letter To My (Former) Primary Care Physician
Dear Dr. PCP,
I called your office this morning at 9 a.m. because I realized this morning that a cold I had yesterday had triggered an asthma attack. I am currently on maintenance medications for asthma (Singulair and Zyrtec), which means I am almost never actively asthmatic. The corollary to this is that when an asthma attack commences I know that the situation is potentially serious, and I explained this to the woman who answered the telephone at your office. I asked for a prescription refill for an albuterol inhaler and an Azmacort inhaler, and told the administrator that my history of asthma, and the drugs I have been prescribed in the past (including these) could be found in my file. This is what followed:
I offered to come in to the office if a doctor wished to see me before refilling my prescriptions.
The administrator said that you were out of the office, but that there was an appointment open at 9:45 with another doctor if I wished to come in.
I said I had no need to come in, but that I was free all day (and certainly at 9:45) and she should ask whatever doctor would see me if he wanted to see me prior to prescribing (since we are all being told, because of H1N1, to stay home when we have undefined flu-like illnesses) and because you yourself advised me not to come into the office when I called with a high fever less than three weeks ago. The administrator said she would call me back and let me know whether to come in or not, and she took down all the information necessary to prescribe.
At 10:15, having heard from no one, I assumed the doctor had simply called the prescription in. I called Walgreen’s because I could tell my asthma was getting worse and I needed to begin to treat it more aggressively before it became more critical. After 15-20 minutes of being on hold at Walgreen’s I discovered that no prescriptions had been called in.
I called the office back to ask about the office visit and the prescription, and was told that because I had not been in the office for four years (which I actually do not think is true, as I have seen you at least twice since Dr. X left, but I realize I could be wrong about this) the doctor could not prescribe without me coming into the office.
At this point, I became exasperated and asked why she had not called me back and told me that so that I could have come in at 9:45. She said she had left a message on my office voice mail. In fact, she had never asked me where I could be reached; my office is in Zenith; and I was at home (sick) in Shoreline. She told me that there was an appointment at 1:50 and I could have that. I told her I was having an asthma attack now, it needed to be treated, and that wasn’t good enough. She put me on hold.
The administrator returned to the telephone to ask me if I was insured, something a look at my file would have clearly revealed (as well as the fact that she had just left a message at the job listed in the file), but which seemed more than insensitive given the circumstances.
Subsequently Dr. XY got on the phone and explained that was the best that could be done, and that if my asthma was really so bad that I could not wait three hours, I should go to the emergency room. He too reproved me for a four-year gap in visiting the office. I recounted the sequence of events in which I had attempted to come to the office earlier in the day and had not been contacted by the office, and he failed to acknowledge that this had even happened. I told him to forget it, that I would obtain an emergency prescription from my gynecologist, Dr. XX of Zenith, who makes it her business to be aware of my total medical profile; that I was inclined to find another physician because of my experience today; and that I thought I was at least due an apology for how the office had bungled this. He declined to apologize for the non-responsiveness of the office, reiterated that the responsibility lay with me for not having come to the office recently enough, and reiterated his advice about the emergency room, suggesting that I call 911 if I was truly in distress.
Now, from my perspective, what went wrong here?
I had offered to come into the office twice in the first phone call, and it would have been the work of a moment for your administrator to look in my file and discover that office procedures would prohibit the prescriptions being refilled without an office visit. I would have made the appointment and come in immediately, without asking for a callback.
The administrator might have put me on hold, talked to the doctor briefly, and asked me to come in; or just asked me to come in, as a precaution, without talking to the doctor.
Failing either of these, the administrator ought to have ascertained, at minimum, where I could be reached in person. For all she knew, when she left a message I was blacking out for lack of oxygen and unable to reach the telephone. I have never heard of a doctor’s office not asking where a patient can be reached. I have never heard of a doctor’s office simply leaving a message on a machine after having been notified of an ongoing, potentially serious, medical condition and not making an attempt to reach the patient at another number listed in the file.
No one seemed to be inclined to look at my file.
Because of errors made by your office, had I not had an attentive gynecologist who makes it her business to know the state of my health, what could have been cared for in a short office visit might have ended in an hours-long, expensive visit to the emergency room. I have never had a physician act as though seeking emergency care from Shoreline EMS and local hospitals was a reasonable way to resolve a health problem that could be at least temporarily resolved without emergency care.
I was not asking for opiates or any drug that might indicate a substance abuse problem: I was asking for asthma medications as a patient whose condition is documented at your office. They could have been prescribed at the time of my second call when it was clear that the administrator had not reached me. If Dr. XY felt he needed to see me, I would have been happy to come in at 1:50 to consult. But that was not offered as an option, and instead I was treated as though I was cruising around town trying to score asthma medications (for what reason I or any other person would do this, I am not clear.)
No one in the office, from the administrators I spoke to up to Dr. XY, seemed inclined to admit that I had any reason to be distressed about how the situation was being handled (which I was, very much so.) Even when I told Dr. XY that his staff person had inexplicably left a message on my office voice mail and had never asked where I could be reached he did not acknowledge that the office had made a mistake; nor did he indicate that he or I had any reason to really be concerned about my asthma short of an attack so severe that I would end up in the hospital. Rather, it was the clear inference that I was unreasonable in my demands, and he too reproved me for not having been to the office recently enough. And yet, consider the following:
When I scheduled a physical with you, Dr. PCP, after Dr. X left town, I asked if I should return yearly. You said no and were vague as to when another physical would be prudent: the clear inference was that you would be reluctant to see me unless I was actually ill. Your office has never contacted me, on the telephone or in writing, to ask me to come in for another wellness visit. My other physicians do tell me when it is time to schedule an appointment, and I see my gynecologist (at her request) once a year.
If it has been four years since my last office visit, I have called at least four times to have my asthma maintenance medications renewed for 12-month refills, and your office has complied. Although I do recall one person I talked to noting that I had not been in to the office for some time, she did not tell me that this was a significant issue for my relationship to the practice. At no point have I been told that it was necessary or desirable to come in for an office visit, even though I am clearly being treated for chronic asthma.
Several weeks ago, I had a sustained fever of 103 for several hours and called your office for an appointment, because at that point public information was that this might be an indicator of an H1N1 infection. I received a prompt return telephone call from you, in which you told me that since the fever had subsided there was no need for me to come in. Again, this would have been an opportunity to suggest I schedule a wellness appointment with the office.
Asthma is one of the underlying conditions that can cause a potential H1N1 infection, or any flu-like illness, to become deadly, even in an otherwise healthy middle-aged person.
In short, rather than being treated like a patient today, I was treated like a problem, and a person who has neglected her responsibilities towards your office – when, in fact, I have not been encouraged to visit the office, even when I call to say that I am ill or need prescription refills. Only once was this mentioned, and it was in the form of a reproof that I did not know how to interpret.
I am sure it was very unpleasant for the administrator and Dr. XY to have to talk to me today once I became upset. I would be inclined to offer an apology of my own, but for their failure at the time to acknowledge that I had reason to be distressed, or that I had a right to care short of a critical medical situation that might require attention on an emergency basis; and that today’s delay in treating a developing condition had been caused by them. Their continual insinuation that this was really all my fault for not having met a responsibility to the practice was insulting and hurtful, as was what now seems like the desire to dispose of me altogether if I turned out to be a person without insurance.
I realize that the current state of medical care is difficult for all of us, doctors and physicians: as the daughter, granddaughter and niece of physicians I am well aware that the state of play has changed in a way that benefits neither patient or physician. But that does not alter what seems to me a series of problems I have encountered with this practice since Dr X’s departure, and Dr. XY treating me as though I were a potential litigant rather than a sick person in need of assistance. I do not trust your office to deal with a routine, but serious, health matter appropriately and sensitively. Please mail a copy of my records to:
T. Radical, Ph. D.
A copy of this letter has been mailed to Dr. PCP. Names have been changed to protect....uh, me.
I am Claire B. Potter, Professor of History and American Studies at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT. My blogging ethic is neither to name or to accurately describe individuals unless I am writing about a public event, or commenting on information already published about that person in a reputable source. Unless I note otherwise, situations, pseudonymous people and professional dilemmas described here are fictional. Uncivil or mean-spirited comments toward me or anyone else will be deleted, as will advertisements for products or services disguising themselves as comments. The Radical can also be found at her Zenith faculty page and at Cliopatria; scholarly and public writing can also be found here. The banner photo was taken from this page.
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