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When Patients Run Out of Patience With Their Doctors

May 08, 2000|From Washington Post

Following are stories of patients who divorced their doctors because they failed to display the qualities that patients value.

The Doctor Didn't Seem to Know Me (or My Child)

Bessy M. Kong, a community development specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, had been increasingly dissatisfied with the Northern Virginia pedxiatricians she had used for three years. The doctor or nurse practitioner was chronically late--45 minutes was typical--and the care seemed perfunctory, if competent.

One day her daughter had the flu and Kong called the office. "I left a message and then I didn't even get a call back till the next day," she recalled. "And then they left a message saying, 'Make sure the infant gets lots of fluids.' Well, Diana was not an infant--she was 5 years old. And I thought, 'They don't even know her.' "

For Kong, the breaking point occurred a few months later, when she left her downtown Washington, D.C., office early to take her daughter in for an annual checkup. "The place was packed, we waited 45 minutes as usual, and then they told me they were too busy and were going to have to reschedule my appointment," said Kong.

"And I thought, 'That's it, I can't do this anymore,' " she said. She marched over to the office manager to tell her why she was leaving--for good. "She was nice but she really didn't care because they have so many people on their waiting list.

"I think it's the attitude I really resented, that your time is worth so little compared to theirs," said Kong, who found a nearby pediatric practice with which she is happy.

Debra L. Roter, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said Kong's experience illustrates the feeling of many patients.

"They want a personal relationship with their doctor, and that doesn't mean social chitchat," Roter said. But she notes that many people don't consider waiting a long time grounds for divorce--as long as that's the only problem.

"Waiting is a factor that people consider as they think about what they're getting out of the relationship," Roter said. "It's sort of like the airlines. If the flight's on time, people are satisfied. But if it's late, they'll complain about the lateness as well as the food, the flight attendants and the overcrowding."

I Felt Rushed--and the Doctor Didn't Listen

In January, Sandy Watson, a 39-year-old marketing consultant who lives in Montgomery County, Md., went to see her internist for tendinitis. She hadn't seen her doctor for a while and also wanted to ask about a few other sensitive issues.

Watson said the doctor "quickly examined my elbow, declared I had tendinitis and started writing a prescription. Then she said, 'What else?' and I asked for a refill of a medication and she began scribbling out a prescription and said, 'What else?'

"I managed to work up the courage to ask one of my sensitive questions and got a quick answer followed by a curt 'What else?' " Watson then summoned her courage and asked about another sensitive subject: a weight-loss drug.

"She coldly told me she didn't really believe in them and then began scribbling out a prescription anyway, and then she left the room," Watson said. "I felt totally humiliated by the whole experience, but by the time I reached the lobby, my embarrassment turned to complete anger. So I went back to the office and I walked back into the examining room.

"She walked by and saw me and was kind of surprised, and I said, 'Please come inside.' And I said, 'I have to tell you I'm extremely angry,' and she said, 'Uh-huh,' and I said, 'I feel like I'm an interruption between your other patients,' and she said, 'Uh-huh,' and I told her that if I'd been treated this way in a Radio Shack, I would have asked to speak to the manager.

"And then she turned to me and said, 'Well, I'm sorry you're having such a bad day,' " recalled Watson, who found that assertion especially galling because "up until my appointment I had been having a terrific day."

"Obviously nothing I said managed to get through," Watson said, "and I realized I was never coming back." She said she got into her car and burst into tears.

Eric Amo-Gottfried dumped an internist he'd been seeing for several years for similar reasons. "Every time I went in, it was as though I was bothering the guy," he said. "I never felt welcome and he always seemed rushed. I figure I'm the consumer, and if I feel rushed and like the doctor doesn't want to be bothered, I'll find someone else."

Those feelings--of being rushed and disparaged--are strong predictors of divorce by patients, experts say. The time pressures under which physicians must operate are undeniable, and there is no dispute that doctors are expected to do more now in a routine visit than they did as recently as five years ago. That change, coupled with the demands of managed-care plans, means that many doctors are seeing more patients and working longer hours.

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