Phone Calls to the Doctor When He is in the Office

When you call a doctor’s office to get a question answered by your doctor, make sure that the answer comes from your doctor and is not just the opinion of the nurse. Much of the time, if the nurse just answers the question on the spot, then the answer is suspect.

Many doctors allow their nurses or office personnel to answer questions like this because they just don’t feel they have the time to do it themselves.

Better safe than sorry. Most good doctors want the questions to go through them first. Just little variations in symptoms or questions can cue a doctor that something is amiss–something that a nurse may not catch.

And realize that the same issues an dangers from “after hours phone calls to your out of office doctor” also pertain here. I’ve seen tragedies where the patient has called and talked with the doctor in the office but because the doctor wasn’t actually examining the patient, he didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation and an absolutely preventable tragedy occurred.1,2

A physician described one disastrous outcome of a telephone medicine:

“Two years ago a 41 year old English journalist died from septicemia. Her case haunts me. Two days before the Easter weekend Penny Campbell had an injection for hemorrhoids. During the weekend she became progressively unwell and called the out-of-hours medical service eight times. None of the doctors she contacted realized how ill she was. By the next day the die was cast; within 23 hours she was dead.”

In 2007 another study sited:

“Threats to patient safety were suspected for several reasons. Telephone medicine removes visual cues. Clinicians use cues in the office setting, such as general appearance of patients, to decide which patients may be sicker than others. And after-hours telephone medicine may be conducted when the doctor is sleepy or distracted and is often without access to patient records. The potential for harm to patients appears to be high.”

“There are many, sometimes potentially serious, threats to patient safety in telephone medicine.”

“After-hours telephone medicine is not as safe as many of us have assumed. Our study demonstrated threats to patient safety. It showed that errors are common, and adverse events are possible.”

Studies, Footnotes and Resources:

  1. Richards, Tessa. “Who Is at the Helm on Patient Journeys?” British Medical Journal 335 (2007): 76
  2. Killip, Shersten, Carol L. Ireson, Margaret M. Love, Steven T. Fleming, Whitney Katirai, and Katherine Sandford. “Patient Safety in After-Hours Telephone Medicine.” Family Medicine 39(6) (2007): 404-409.