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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 the…well…it’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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Amanda Kohl
    2 weeks ago

    I’m laughing too hard this early in the morning. What a way to start the day! In my previous life, I was a nurse/office manager for a large group of general surgeons so I am all too aware of the “on-call process” from the inside. Now as a patient, I’ll do absolutely anything I can to keep from using that option. I have to say that you absolutely nailed it with your suggestion of learning the office staff and utilizing humble bribes to become a patient that is thought of fondly rather than unfavorably; and your in-law analogy was a bullseye!!! One thing I have found that has saved me from playing “on-call roulette” is having a refill of prednisone in my RA toolbox. My Rheumy and I came up with a couple of taper combinations to use depending on the issue and that gets me through until I can call the office on Monday. Thanks so much for a fantastic article! Your sense of humor and writing style are my absolute favorite, I look forward to seeing more articles from you soon!!

  • Richard Faust moderator
    1 week ago

    Hi Amanda. My wife, Kelly Mack (a contributor here), basically has the same arrangement with her doctor – a second prescription of prednisone for those as needed circumstances. The big problem that came up recently was a bizarre skin issue and infection that was largely outside of the rheumatologist’s purview (later diagnosed as a rare form of psoriasis – so, still autoimmune). Of course, the crazy flare-ups on the weekends – aren’t they always. Best, Richard ( Team)

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    2 weeks ago

    @amandakohl Ohh, an insider! Well, I’m happy to hear you confirm all the things I’ve been thinking were true but never actually knew. Don’t worry, I won’t tell all the other nurse/office managers that you turned state’s evidence. It’s good that you and your doc trust each other like that, I have that after years and years only, I can’t imagine those who don’t it must be much more of a chore. Thanks for reading! Don’t worry, lots more to come! Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Mary Sophia Hawks moderator
    2 weeks ago

    Bravo Daniel!! What a great article! Now I have to go check my patient portal to see if I can send messages!! Lol, didn’t realize that was an option!
    I always call and ask to speak with my rheumatologist’s MA. I know if I leave a message for her, she will call me back after having discussed it with my doc.
    Thanks Daniel. Blessings,
    Mary Sophia

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    2 weeks ago

    @c7mv96 I know, right? Don’t worry you’re not missing out on much, trust me, patient portals are awful. The test numbers freak you out because even if they are normal you have no idea what you’re looking at, and for some reason I always have to do “forget password and answer those ridiculous questions.” Who thinks them up?? Like i can remember what I put for “This is your elementary school’s best friend’s first name backwards.” Yikes. Thanks for reading. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Leanne Donaldson moderator
    2 weeks ago

    *pukey hundos* – Y’all, I just can’t even! I seriously can’t love this article more. Forgive my lack of written etiquette, but I can’t see through my tears to come up with a better response!

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    2 weeks ago

    @ldonaldson Thanks! I wasn’t sure if that line would hit but you have proved it was the right choice! I wish i COULD puke 100 dollar bills. I certainly don’t want them coming out the other way. 😀 Thanks for reading! Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • CynthiaV
    3 weeks ago

    Hilarious article Daniel…thanks for the laugh. I’m here to say that I haven’t called my rheumy in years. Yes, he has a patient portal and I use it. And wonder of wonders he gets back to me (unless on vacation) amazingly quickly concerning the number of patients he sees. He even responds on weekends. I know how fortunate I am.

    You nailed it with the in law analogy. I learned long ago not to contact the on-call dr. They don’t know me and end up telling me things I already know won’t help. Plus, I take offense easily concerning my health. And the biggest bugaboo–I neither know nor trust him/her. So why bother. I’ll wait till my rheumy is available. It’s not a perfect plan but I’m still here.

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    @cynthiav The patient portals are hit or miss for me. Also, i have to keep track of no less than three separate ones and my oncologist flat out told me – “yeah, i don’t get your messages, it goes to some rotating assistant.” I was like that’s wonderful doc, what an ingenious system you’ve devised here at the ^G%@&(# hospital. Glad you got a laugh though, I mean, the absurdity of it all, you have to. Thanks for reading, keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • christine.laaksonen moderator
    3 weeks ago

    Daniel, this is such a great article. Thanks for sharing your advice, and with such humor. I have to admit, I chuckled aloud a few times while reading. (What am I interrupting when a doctor’s on-call, anyway?) Hopefully our community will be able to use some of this advice to ease their stress about getting responses from doctors. — Christine ( Team Member)

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    @christine-laaksonen Only a chuckle?? Looks like I’ll have to step it up next time – this is it, I don’t dance! Ha ha. Nah, that’s great. It’s exactly what I hoped when people read my stuff – to laugh. We have to face this stuff with humor or else it’s all tears and sad face. Thanks for reading. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    3 weeks ago

    LOL, I had a doctor ask me once what i meant by RA. I said Rheumatoid Arthritis. Oh he said that is odd. Why I asked? Well you are a male. Yes I explained but males have RA. Well are you sure he asked?

    Good grief. I thought, the guy was goign to ask me what diabetes is. Grrr.

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    @lawrphil Having an actual MD tell me I was so young to have RA was a shocking moment for me. It just goes to show that just because someone has an MD, it doesn’t mean they are infallible. Or nice. Or even a good doctor. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

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