Doctor, Call Me!

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk in the community about the difficulty of getting your doctor to respond. Most seem to agree that getting a hold of a doctor on the phone today is as difficult as buying a sandwich now without some weird dressing on it (I can’t even). Sometimes you just want a regular turkey sandwich without mango chutney – nay, without ANY kind of chutney – and sometimes you just want your doctor to call you back already.

Trust me, I get it, I’ve been there. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t need to talk to one of my docs on a weekend or weekday between 12 am and 5 am. Do you know the odds of actually getting a doctor to call you back on a Sunday evening? About the same odds as your rheumatoid arthritis spontaneously curing itself and also you start vomiting money.

As much as we all could use a few pukey hundos, that’s just not gonna happen – and neither is a doctor calling you back on the weekend. So, that leaves you with one of two options. You can stick it out until the next business day or deal with the dreaded “doctor on call”.

Frustrations with the doctor on call

Are they annoyed that I called?

The “doctor on call” is kind of like in-laws – they don’t really know you at all, but that doesn’t stop them from telling you exactly what you should do and how to do it (married people - nailed it, didn’t I? #BestLifeInLaw). The doctor on call is someone who has never met you before and is seeing your file for the first time, if at all. Most of them start out the call annoyed because how dare you interrupt their game of baccarat with the Count of East Westchestershire. I imagine. (I don’t really know what doctors do at home.) Already behind the eight-ball, once you start actually talking to the ersatz expert, things go from bad to worse.

Lack of history or rapport

Nothing inspires confidence in the person telling you that you aren’t dying like having them ask “You have RA right?” It’s a real morale booster. After that comes the inevitable “Tell me what medicines you are taking.” Sorry, don’t you have the file in front of you? Chances are, though, they don’t. Docs on call are just as likely to have a post-it pad filled with R-rated doodles of barnyard animals as they are to have your real file. In my case, my file is actually filled with R-rated doodles of barnyard animals, so I’m screwed either way. (My doc and I have a weird relationship after 25 years).

It feels like they don't have the answers

The point is, the doc on call is flying blind almost always. You'd be just as likely to come up with a solution by drawing a ring on the ground and throwing all your pills up in the air and swallowing whatever lands inside the circle. Or outside. Or putting on a dolphin costume and standing outside the local mall telling people you’ll work for fish but never halibut. Point is, “Boy that call really put my mind at ease” is a thing you’ll never say.

How can we make this less exhausting?

So it must be hopeless, then. You might as well jump in a hole and throw dirt on yourself. Well...before you call that girl from high school who stole your boyfriend and tell her what you really think of her lemon squares (so bitter!), let’s take a beat and see if we can figure something out. It’s a problem that patients have been dealing with since before phones existed (I assume), and I’m sure those people didn’t just drop dead when their local doc didn’t answer their smoke signals.

E-mail is your quickest bet

First and foremost, it’s time for those of you who haven’t joined the digital age to take the plunge. Two words: e-mail. Errr, one word...ish. Now I know that the Interweb can be a scary place, what with all those Nigerian Princes, “Facepage” and the twerking, but it’s time. It’s past time. Sorry for the tough love, but it’s time to merge onto that information superhighway and turn off your damn blinker. Most doctors these days have an e-mail address that you can use to reach them and anyone who has a smartphone, or even a dumb phone, usually gets their emails instantly.

Access the patient portal system

Now, as of late, some big hospitals have been moving to the portal system. No, this doesn’t mean they teleport to your house to talk to you, we aren’t there quite yet. It just means that instead of sending e-mails to an actual e-mail address, you have to go on their website, log in using an account you make, and then send your doctor a message from the website. Frankly, it’s a huge pain in’s annoying, let’s just leave it at that. But, it’s what we got. Honestly, though, the mode of contact doesn’t matter – don’t be afraid to ask about your doctor’s electronic communication options and then avail yourself of them.

Be friendly: get to know the office staff

Another thing I’ve learned in my years as an esteemed patient is to get friendly with the office staff. Learn their names, ask how they are doing after every appointment, bring them gifts during the holidays – basically, don’t be afraid to bribe your way to the top of the callback pile. No? Don’t want to? Ethical reservations? Hate people in general? I get it.

Here’s the thing though: your RA doesn’t have any moral dilemma about crapping on your week. So when it comes time to fight, you have to pull out all the stops. And, honestly, whose name is more likely to make it to the top of the pile? The guy who brings a box of expensive yet tasteful cookies with him every visit, or the guy who calls the secretary “Barb” even though her name is actually Gwen (and those names don’t’ even start with the same letter)? You know whose folder is getting put on the top of that pile.

I hope this helps to ease some of the burden from those I’ve been seeing on the Facebook page complaining they can’t seem to get their doctors to respond. It’s a subtle dance, for sure; you don’t want to be annoying but also you don’t want to die. Totally understandable – just be smart about it and keep telling yourself that you have every right to question your care. Talk soon.

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