A recent article in the September/October issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Practice by David Hildebrandt called attention to an issue with some answering services techniques that serve to prevent patients from contacting their physicians. By simply being asked "Is this an emergency?", many contacts with the physician are eliminated. Patients often call their doctor because they do not know if the issue is serious enough to be considered an emergency or not. This "filtering" technique does not serve the interests of the patient.Procedural barriers limiting contact with doctors cannot be in the physicians' s best interests either.
The survey admittedly was small, only 35 physicians offices were contacted and of those 14 used answering services and 9 of those asked the patients to decide if their call should be fowarded to the doctor. The small sample size precludes robust conclusions about how widespread the practice might be. An larger earlier study by the same lead author involved 91 primary care offices and in 55 the answering services "forced" the patients to decide if it was an emergency requiring a call back from the physician. Clearly ,this is not a good practice but I have encountered worse. I have attempted to contact physicians after hours, and sometimes on Friday afternoon and been unable to contact them at all or anyone providing coverage. The answering machine-not even a human- informs the caller what the office hours are and that if they have an emergency they should go to the nearest emergency room.
Another approach is the nurse telephone triage. While this is better I have some uneasy feeling about this as well. When you get old and cranky you tend to think if things are not done like you did them they are off base. When I was in private practice all calls were referred by the answering service to either the patient's physician or the on call doctor.
Dr. Bruce Bagley,the medical director for quality at the American Academy of Family Physicians, is quoted in the American Medical News story about the article:
"You want the highest level clinical person determining what's an emergency, not a person at an answering service who knows nothing from nothing."