How to Stop Screwing Your Patients in Four Simple Steps

by Bill Brenner on June 15, 2012

A colonoscopy I was supposed to have today was abruptly canceled over missing paperwork. Normally I wouldn’t complain about something like this because life happens. But I’m hearing a lot lately about medical offices screwing up and making the patient feel stupid instead of taking responsibility.

Mood music:


I know people who get scared shitless when they have to go for a procedure. They worry for weeks and just want to get it over with, and when they’re kicked to the curb, it makes their angst 10 times worse.

I used to get that way. I’d obsess for weeks before the colonoscopies I have to have because of the Crohn’s Disease. I’d work myself up into a frenzy about getting the damned thing over with. As a result, a cancellation would send me deep into a depressed fog, and then I’d work myself up into another frenzy for a few more weeks.

Fortunately, I got past the frenzy-depression cycle long ago. I’m deeply annoyed about today’s cancellation, but I’m not in a fog. I was happy to break my fast with an iced coffee from Starbucks and have an extra workday to get things done. But in the process, I’ve had to throw other people’s plans into chaos so that I could get this test rescheduled.

With that, I want medical professionals to understand a few things:

  • If you have to cancel someone’s procedure, it can be traumatic. Don’t be cold and make the patient feel stupid for being upset. Saying “I’m sorry, but …” isn’t good enough. You need to reassure the patient that setbacks like this happen and that everything will work out in the end.
  • Doctors shouldn’t hide behind their staff. If the doctor screws up on paperwork, sending staff to deliver the bad news isn’t enough. The doctor should call the patient and personally apologize. For a patient suffering from anxiety, that small personal gesture can be the thing that helps them reset their expectations.
  • Don’t blame HIPAA. People in the medical profession love blaming everything on HIPPA and other laws. When I noted that the botched paperwork was never necessary before, the medical assistant said new laws had taken affect since the last time I had this procedure. I’ve lost count of the times doctors’ offices held back information under the excuse of HIPPA. I’ve been writing about HIPPA in my day job for eight years, and I know you guys violate HIPAA daily. And there are ways to tell patients what they need to know without violating HIPAA.
  • Don’t save paperwork until the last minute. As I’ve said, life happens. In my case, the specialists couldn’t access needed medical records because my primary care physician was called away on a family emergency. If the specialist had sought the paperwork a week or two ago, this wouldn’t have happened.

If you’re in the medical profession and disagree with anything I’ve just said, tell me why. And spare me the HIPAA excuses.

Doctor's Office

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Katherine D. June 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Hi Bill,

I quite agree with you, I do in fact work for a doctors office and get to be that person who has to deliver bad news from time to time. I do my best to be honest with the patient and not give them a load of garbage and I never ever quote HIPAA well don’t even get me started. I do apologize if I am being forced to inconvenience the patient but the run around is so not necessary, like you said don’t pass the buck just admit you were wrong! Most of the time I am forced to apologize for something that had nothing to do with me and take the brunt of the anger from the patient. If they needed additional paperwork it was definitely the responsibility of the office to make sure they had said papers in hand days before your appt time and if not to call you well enough in advance to let you know. Having said that I understand that sometimes life does happen but in this case it sounds like sheer stupidity and something that easily could have been avoided. Rant over, thanks!

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