Nov 19 2007

Doctoring: the Ultimate in Customer Service? Or not.

My husband works for a large, international corporation that offers tech support 24/7 for his computer. Beginning last Friday when his laptop began giving him fits, he contacted tech support for help. In the span of 2-1/2 days, and a dozen calls, his laptop is still not functioning correctly.

His experience struck me as the best of metaphors for the communications problems I hear about from the frustrated patients who just can’t seem to communicate well with their doctors — as follows:

After dialing the phone, Hubby would wait and wait, offer up his account numbers, and finally get through to Sheba, the IT “doctor.” (How often have you sat and sat and sat in the waiting room, after handing over all your insurance information?)

Sheba would ask, “what is the problem you’re having?” Within seconds of beginning his description of what was going wrong with the laptop, and when the problem began, Hubby would be interrupted, told to push this button or that, given instructions as to how to fix it — but since Sheba hadn’t really listened to what the problem was, the instructions didn’t work. (How often have you been interrupted by your doctor? Dr. Jerome Groopman, in his book How Doctors Think, tells us that doctors interrupt on an average of 18 seconds into your appointment.)

Hubby would, exasperated, try to interrupt her back to explain to her, but she was off babbling about something else. The problem was, she was using the language in such a way that he couldn’t understand, talking so fast that everything had to be repeated several times. (Does your doctor use medical terms you don’t understand? Does your doctor come from another country and his accent makes it difficult for you to distinguish what he’s saying?)

Then Sheba would log onto my husband’s computer (which she could do through the magic of technology), click here, adjust there — and tell my husband he was good to go. He would exit the repair system, think all was well and he’d be back in business — only to find out that no, what she had done didn’t work. (Wrong diagnosis — wrong treatment — when was the last time you were prescribed a drug that didn’t really help what was wrong with you?)

So Hubby would call again — only to have the same thing happen all over again. And thus was the way he spent his weekend. (How often have you had to go back to the doctor for a new treatment because the one you were given didn’t work?)

The lesson? Not sure there is one today — except to make a few observations:

Hubby is required to use the IT services provided by his company because it is their laptop, not his personal one. He had no choice but to continue beating his head against Sheba’s brick wall. But we as patients do not have to accept rude and inadequate service from physicians. If you find that you cannot communicate effectively with your doctor, then find another doctor.

Among all the education and training doctors receive, there is too often a lack of teaching communications skills. If we think about it, doctors should be the consummate customer service professionals. This is way too often not the case at all. I do not understand why medical schools don’t take communications more seriously…. what profession should be able to effectively communicate to its customers/patients more than doctors?

Knowing doctors may not be good communicators, we need to do exactly as hubby did — stop their interruptions and insist on being heard. Unfortunately what Hubby learned was that this particular person has no capability of listening OR fixing his computer. That will be dealt with separately, I’m sure…. but as patients we do have options. We have the option of insisting on being heard — and we have the option of finding another doctor when we think we have not been heard.

To be clear on one distinction — we’re not talking about “nice,” we are talking about effective. Sheba could have been nasty, but still fixed Hubby’s laptop. Instead she was nasty, and incapable of fixing the laptop. As patients, we don’t need a “nice” doctor — we need one we can work with to improve our health… there’s a difference between being a good communicator, and being nice.

We patients need to remember that we have no reason to be victims — not victims of bad medicine or bad communication. And that’s the bottom line.

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