The health care system treats patients like garbage

I started and stopped writing this post many times because it’s mostly whining. But, dammit, it’s a consumer’s right to whine, so here it is: in my experience (YMMV) — and that of many others I know — the health care system largely treats patients like garbage.

I was reminded of this fact during my recent experience dealing with my daughter’s broken arm. It started well enough. Our pediatrician has late hours and an X-ray machine, so we were able to skip the Friday night (and more expensive) emergency department visit for our initial diagnosis, and therefore missed all the attendant waiting and frustration.

Upon viewing the X-rays, the pediatrician conveyed that it was not a bad break and didn’t need to be addressed immediately. A brace, which she provided, was good enough for now. Fair enough. But what was our next step? “The X-rays need to be examined by a radiologist before I can tell you that,” my wife was told. OK …

I wonder how long we would have waited for that to happen. By the middle of Saturday, we became too uncomfortable to find out, so I called the pediatrician’s office. Now, and with no further consideration of the X-rays, they were wiling to give us some recommendations for orthopedic clinics. Why couldn’t those have been given to us on Friday?

Naturally, one clinic was closed on the weekend. But, the other, hospital-based one, had Sunday hours. Great! A call to that clinic got me a voice-mail. I left a message. I have never gotten a call back, but I didn’t wait for one. I called again later and got a person who told me they had 7AM walk-in hours. Just go to the main hospital entrance and ask for the walk-in orthopedic clinic, I was told.

This was bad advice. After dragging my broken-limbed daughter through every door that plausibly seemed like the main entrance, we finally found someone who said we should go through the ED entrance. That was the right answer, but not what we were told on the phone.

After waiting and registering, we finally saw the orthopedist. He was great. It was, in fact, not a bad break. Now it is safely casted. All is well. But not before we had to do a lot of legwork — and received a lot of wrong answers, promises of follow-ups that didn’t happen, etc. Meanwhile, our pediatrician has not (yet) checked in on her patient.

I get it. She’s busy with more urgent matters. It makes sense, but it sucks, and all the more knowing that we spend a fortune for such treatment. No other business would treat customers this way. In health care, inconvenience, uncertainty, lost records, lack of follow-up and coordination, the necessity of self-advocacy, and lots and lots of waiting is the norm.

Of course, there are some examples of good customer service in health care. I’ve even experienced them. But every tasty crumb I’m tossed just reminds me how awful the rest of the meal is.

In his most recent article, Atul Gawande related an example of good customer service in health care. The patient, Haynes, had experienced a lifetime of frequent, debilitating migraines. None of the more standard treatments worked, so his doctor, Loder, got creative.

The most exotic thing they tried was Botox—botulinum-toxin injections—which the F.D.A. had approved for chronic migraines in 2010. She thought he might benefit from injections along the muscles of his forehead. Haynes’s insurer refused to cover the cost, however, and, at upwards of twelve hundred dollars a vial, the treatment was beyond what he could afford. So Loder took on the insurer, and after numerous calls and almost a year of delays Haynes won coverage.

That’s what I’m talking about! This should be standard, but it isn’t. More typically, the patient is left holding the bag. You want the treatment you need, go fight your insurer for it. The health system is not going to help you, because it is not in most stakeholder’s interest to do so. It also should be noted that such inconvenience keeps health spending down — and I completely appreciate the need to be prudent with spending — but it still sucks for patients.

Perhaps concierge medicine is the answer, or paying more for your own care. We’ll see, because we’re running that experiment right now. I’m not seeing a lot of movement, but maybe it’s too early or I’m unlucky. I could just be a whiner.


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