I'll Take that Call Now

Why do patients take a call when they're with the doctor, and does it bother you?

Jill of All Trades, MD is a family physician blogger who has a post on KevinMD titled Why answering a cell phone during an office visit is a problem. She writes from the perspective of a primary care doc, and talks about the awkwardness of patients talking on the phone during their office visits. She talks about it with a detective/spy metaphor:

Me: “Your recent lab test shows that your diabetes is currently not sufficiently controlled with the current regimen. Your hemoglobin A1C, which is a lab test that tells me what your sugar level has been at home for the past three months, is 8.1. We need to add a medication at this point because…”

“Riiinnnggg!!,” a quite startling sound lifts me off my seat, as if signaling a new secret-agent assignment.

Patient: “Oh, Doctor, hold on one minute please.”

Is this a conspiracy? Before I can even respond, she picks up the cell phone and starts talking to this rather shady intruder.

Patient: “Hi, honey. I’m at the doctor’s office. What do you need? …”

I wait about thirty seconds, with what seems like an eternity in the secret agent world, and she is still on the phone with this suspicious invader. At this point, I decide to exit the premises.

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For some people, answering the phone immediately seems to be a bit of a compulsion. And for someone who's waited a long time to see an over-booked doctor, I can see why they might want to take a call. Maybe it's a call that was prearranged for a time long after the patient thought they'd be free...but the patient was surprised to find the doctor was running late, and so why should they put someone on hold for a doctor who's kept them waiting? Why is it a one-way street? Oh, because it is.

In psychotherapy it's a different story: people pay for time by the chunk and there aren't patients backed up waiting to fit into the same time slot. I feel like it's the patient's time, and I don't feel like I should say to an anxious mother, "Don't take that call." Still, I'm always a bit surprised when people feel the need to take non-urgent calls during an appointment, and to talk for a bit. I feel a little uncomfortable listening. And even for those who quickly say, "I'm with the doctor, I'll call you back," I'm not sure what that gains over having the phone off.

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