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Front desk, front line

I'm looking for a new vet and a new doctor, after relying on the same ones for 10 years. For the last five years, I've been dissatisfied. It's not the doctors who are causing the problem; it's a tribute to their knowledge, caring and warmth that I've hung in so long. My problem is with the management of their offices, the front-desk personnel and sometimes both. From the outside, it's difficult to tell who's responsible, but I've been putting up with frustrations for too long.

Five years ago, about the time my problems began, my doctor's practice was bought by a larger organization whose managers are far removed and not particularly interested in making things run smoothly as long as the patients and payments keep rolling in. My vet-office insanity is the result of another form of greed. The practice has gotten way too big, and they don't want to put their profits into hiring more front-desk employees. The result is under-staffing, incompetence and long waits.

My latest fury came when I pulled my child out of school for a sports physical and drove 45 minutes to an appointment I'd made six weeks previously, only to discover an empty parking lot and a note on the door saying the doctor's office was closed due to the weather. My generosity of spirit had been eroded by miles of road-paving and, though signs of tornado damage were all around me, I wondered why they'd had time to close down the office but not enough time to print out the list of patients and call them from another phone.

The next day, I called their office and was put on hold three times for a total of 15 minutes before I began to vent to the receptionist. She was defensive, especially in light of my attack (and the many others she'd probably heard that day), and you can imagine how pleased I was when she ended the conversation by connecting me to the office manager's voice mail. That's when I hung up and began to wonder about finding a new doctor. I think I would have been more forgiving if I hadn't had a similar experience at my last appointment.

Last time, I'd waited six months for a physical, only to be told on arrival, "That doctor's not in today. Didn't anyone call you?" Of course, by that time I'd accumulated a laundry list of physical complaints and medication needs. So I told them the least they could do was squeeze in a quick appointment to deal with my immediate concerns.

Here's where the insanity increased. I waited 45 minutes for my five minutes of doctor time and refused to pay the office-visit charges. I'd already paid in time lost and stress gained. They agreed, and told me, "We'll just bill your insurance company and disregard your co-pay." I didn't think that sounded quite right, and I told them so. After scheduling a new appointment for a physical seven months later (the first available, I was told), I went home to call my insurance company to tell them to be on the alert for those charges.

Sometimes the receptionists aren't to blame for these inconveniences, and I am quick to begin my conversations with an apology in advance: "I'm really sorry that you're the person who has to answer my phone call today, because I'm not very happy," I warn them. I feel sorry for those on the front line who suffer the slings and arrows of outraged patients.

But sometimes the receptionists are responsible. A friend of mine with a 14-year-old dog feared a stroke when she noticed that her dog's eyes seemed strangely droopy. A receptionist with no veterinary training told her that the vet could not see her dog for three days, and had she considered it might be a wandering eye? Two days earlier, my feisty pup and I had been kept waiting for 30 minutes by the same vet.

Reception would be comical if it weren't so frustrating. My most bizarre experience occurred last summer when I broke a tooth biting down on a piece of hard candy. Even though the accident was caused by my own stupidity, I called the UNC Dental School emergency desk full of the kind of fear that can only come when a part of your body breaks off.

The receptionist told me, in a singsong voice, "You can be seen only if you need a root canal or if you want us to pull the tooth." After she repeated this refrain three times in answer to my mounting anxiety, I asked to speak to her supervisor.

He must have had the same trainer, for though he was more polite, he'd only learned the same chorus: "Sorry, ma'am, but you can only be seen if you need a root canal or if you want us to pull the tooth."

I responded with a solo that must have unnerved him: "May I please speak to the dentist?" I asked. To protect the dentist's time and possible embarrassment, he grudgingly told me I could come in and see a dentist. After I waited two hours for a six-minute visit, I walked back to the reception room where I waited in line to pay.

As I was waiting, in walked a woman with a tiny infant in her arms. She looked as if she were just out of delivery and wore those qualities of distraction and confusion that come with pain. "I got a toothache," she complained, rubbing her jaw and pointing to a tooth right in front.

Out came the standard line with which I'd become familiar: "We can only give you a root canal or pull the tooth."

"OK, I guess you can pull the tooth," she said, and settled down for a long wait with her newborn in the crook of her arm.

What led her to make this decision? Was it pain or being bamboozled by the front-desk greeting? I'd bet on the latter.

I'm looking for some new doctors who will provide me with the quality of care I'm used to receiving. But I also want to know how their office operates, who owns them and who's at the front desk. EndBlock

  • Lack of respect from front-desk personnel drives a Chapel Hill writer to search for a new doctor and a new vet.

More by Susie Wilde

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