Several minutes into a complicated discussion of his medical problems, a lawyer who was a patient of Orly Avitzur, medical adviser to Consumer Reports, reached into his briefcase to answer a ringing cellphone. Holding up his hand to signal that she should wait, he proceeded to have a conversation with a client that lasted a number of minutes.
The experience left Avitzur so stunned that she couldn’t begin to formulate an appropriate response. As she learned from her colleagues later, this transgression tops the list of many doctors’ pet peeves about patients. (What physicians want you to do in such cases is this: Set your phone to vibrate or, better yet, turn it off. If you must answer, say you will return the call later.)
Inconsiderate behavior can destroy in seconds a relationship with your doctor that may have taken years to build. Here’s Avitzur’s scoop on what doctors complain about behind closed doors.
●Being late. Avitzur puts effort into keeping on top of her own office schedule, so when patients show up late and she tries to jam them in, it creates a domino effect that throws everything off. While it’s true that many doctors also have problems running on time, often that’s related to medical emergencies. If your doctor makes you see red by making you wait too long or too often, find another doctor. And if you find yourself running late, call the doctor’s office to see if you’re better off rescheduling.
●No-shows. Even worse than being late is failing to show up for a scheduled appointment at all. It’s so common that many offices have a “three strikes” rule: If you miss three appointments without letting the doctor know, you’re dismissed from the practice. Not only is it rude to the doctor, it’s also a disservice to your fellow patients. Offices almost always have a waiting list of patients who can use your slot if you can’t. If you must skip an appointment, call as far in advance as possible. Most of the time, you won’t even have to give an excuse.
●Withholding information. Patients are often referred to Avitzur for a second opinion. On occasion, they try to withhold vital medical information, such as MRI results or the names of their other physicians. Their goal, some have confessed, is to see if she arrives at the same diagnosis and proposes the same recommendations as their first doctor. That’s counterproductive. Your history, exams, test results and reactions to medication provide essential clues to your condition and its management. The more information you provide, the better your practitioners will be able to do their jobs.
●Lying. Sometimes patients are too embarrassed to admit that they’ve stopped taking their pills or have ignored other advice, so they hide the truth. Doctors would much rather know what’s going on so they can be of help, whether that means changing your prescription or figuring out an alternative strategy. They’re also more likely to make serious errors — such as increasing a dosage that was right to start with — if you don’t clue them in.
●Asking doctors to lie. Avitzur says she’s still surprised when she’s asked to backdate prescriptions for insurance reasons or alter medical notes. This is fraud, and it can cost doctors their licenses. Ditto for notes to employers explaining your (nonmedical) absence and excuses from jury duty for nonexistent reasons.
●“Doorknob” questions. Those questions, typically delivered just as the patient is about to leave, are often bombshells. “By the way, Doc, I’ve been blacking out at the wheel” began one patient recently, seconds after saying goodbye. Dealing with last-minute issues can make doctors late for other patients or cause them serious concern until they have time to properly evaluate the problem. In advance of each visit, it’s best to make a list of questions and concerns — from most important to least — and start at the top.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.