The Problem with After-Hours Phone Calls to Your Doctor

Although it is very comforting to be able to call your doctor when the office is closed, know that yo uprobably don’t have his full attention. He may be slepeing, drinking or driving and his full attention is not on you like it is when you in the office.

You should be very cautious when relying on medical advice you get over the phone. It’s a double-edge sword. When you get it, you feel better, but is it really reliable?

The doctor hasn’t seen and examined you. He’s relying on you to convey medical information. Since you have no medical training, he’s most likely offering an opinion based on incomplete information.

If you have sudden severe and continuous pain, or you see a condition in a loved one that has worsened and now worries you, go to the emergency room and get a valid examination and opinion.

Many fatal mistakes have been made by doctors reassuring scared patients that they can wait until morning, no problem– but the doctor didn’t get all of the story because he couldn’t see the patient, and he was not sharp and focused on asking all of the right questions that might have protected the patient.

Several studies have confirmed this point. In a 2007 study, Katz et. al described 32 cases of telephone-related medical malpractice claims.

“The most common allegation was failed diagnosis (68%); the most common injury was death (44%).”1

Faulty triage was an error in 84% of the cases “ususally because incomplete history taking over the phone”.1 The doctors did not “guess right” about whether the illnesses were serious or not in 84% of those malpractice cases.

“Regarding faulty triage decisions, a dynamic seems to emerge where medical complaints are presented over the phone compared to seeing patients in the office. Evaluation is more difficult on the phone because of time pressure, as well as not being able to see the patient during the dialogue. As a consequence, history taking is often rushed and incomplete, letting the patient, rather than the clinician/doctor, do the triage.”1

If you think your loved one is in medical trouble, then call 911 if urgent, or take them to the emergency room where a doctor can see them right away.

Don’t be a statistic- doctors can’t diagnose through the phone, or when they are sleepy or focused on other things.

Studies, Footnotes and Resources:

  1. Katz, Harvey P., Dawn Kaltsounis, Liz Halloran, and Maurren Mondor. “Patient Safety and Telephone Medicine: Some Lessons from Closed Claim Case Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine 23 (5) (2007):517-522