What really matters when you call your doctor's office
Physician office gatekeepers can endanger patients by giving bad medical advice
Yesterday, I spent most of the day in a deposition of my client, where a key issue was when her surgeon became aware of certain complications she was experiencing.
Calling the surgeon after a procedure
This medical malpractice case is about a middle-aged woman who consulted a bariatric surgeon about a procedure. Several years earlier, she had a successful gastric bypass surgery. She had good results from that surgery for over a decade, but eventually started putting on more weight. When non-surgical options did not seem to help, she sought out a new surgeon about a revision procedure.
The weight-loss surgeon recommended a lap band, which he described as a quick, one day, in-and-out procedure that could be done at an outpatient ambulatory surgical center, over a gastric bypass procedure.
About a month after the surgery, the patient noticed that her pain level did not seem to be improving and her port site seemed swollen. At her next follow-up appointment, she showed the surgeon, but he said that he did not see what she was talking about.
Her next appointment was a month away. When her pain and swelling got worse, she called her surgeon’s office and asked for an appointment. In fact, she called three different times to ask for help. Each time, she was shooed away by the surgeon’s front office staff, who told her that the doctor was fully booked and no appointments were available.
In my experience as a Houston, Texas, medical malpractice lawyer, many bariatric surgeons run their offices like a conveyor belt. They do lots of surgeries at one time and lots of follow-up appointments at other times. They cram so many patients into a schedule that it is hard for them to keep up if anything goes wrong.
Indeed, most surgical weight loss clinics can only keep up if they do not have to deal with complications. Thus, I think that front office staff frequently downplay patient calls about symptoms that concern them.
In the deposition yesterday, the plaintiff recalled making multiple calls to the surgeon’s office. In contrast, the surgeon’s office chart only references one call, which is the date when his front office staff scheduled the patient for an appointment two days later.
The existence and timing of these calls are important to our medical negligence case because the patient suffered from a terrible infection, which our medical expert believes could have been more easily and quickly treated with a prompt diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the front office staff at many physician offices view themselves as gatekeepers, even though many of them have little to no medical or nursing training. When they go beyond handling administrative and scheduling matters and start giving medical advice, there can be big problems.
Calling the OB/GYN during pregnancy
This situation reminds me of another case that I handled a few years ago. A mom was pregnant with her first child, nearing the end of her pregnancy. She noticed a tiny bit of blood in her urine and immediately called her OB/GYN physician’s office. She told a nurse who answered the phone about the blood, as well as the fact that she believed her baby was moving less than normal.
Medical experts know that decreased fetal movement late in a pregnancy is a cause for extreme concern that needs immediate evaluation by a physician. While the standard of care required the nurse to tell this mom to go straight to the hospital labor and delivery unit, or to drive straight to the doctor’s office, instead, she instructed the mom to drink some orange juice and try to wake up her baby.
These suggestions did not work. By the time the mom got to the hospital, the baby had already sustained permanent brain damage. Those drops of blood in the urine were a sign that the mom’s placenta was failing, which means that the baby was not receiving adequate oxygen and nutrients. If the OB/GYN office’s nurse had told her to go straight to the hospital, the baby would have been emergently delivered and would likely have been fine.
What you can do
In my experience, if a patient thinks something is wrong, they’re usually right. At a minimum, a healthcare provider needs to get all of the information to make an informed decision about what the patient needs.
If you are pregnant or in a post-surgical situation, where you are having regular visits with your doctor, I recommend being thorough and assertive when calling the physician’s office about potential complications or concerns.
Realize that the office staff is busy handling lots of patients and calls, so be ready to explain why your situation is important. Also, be clear on what you want. Start by making sure that you are speaking with a nurse or other healthcare provider, rather than a clerical person.
If you think you need to be seen by the doctor, explain why. Sometimes, a good way of getting the point across is to explain how you have been getting better and better, but you have noticed a precipitous turn for the worse. If the office staff is unwilling to schedule an appointment, ask the doctor to call you back. Be sure to keep a journal where you write down the date and time for each call, the name of the person with whom you spoke, and what you told them. Be sure to reference this information if you must make future calls for the same thing.
We are here to help
If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or even died because of poor medical, surgical, or hospital care, then the experienced medical malpractice attorneys at Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, are here to help. Click here to send us a confidential email via our “Contact Us” form or call us at 281-580-8800.
All consultations are free, and, because we only represent clients on a contingency fee, you will owe us nothing unless we win your case. We handle cases in the Houston area and all over Texas. We are currently working on medical malpractice lawsuits in Houston, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Conroe, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Bryan/College Station, and Waco.
Robert Painter is a medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. A member of the board of directors of the Houston Bar Association, he was honored, in 2018, by H Texas as one of Houston’s top lawyers. Also, in 2018, the Better Business Bureau recognized Painter Law Firm PLLC with its Award of Distinction.
Robert Painter is a medical malpractice lawyer at Painter Law Firm PLLC.
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