One aspect of my job is helping clients get timely medical appointments. It is not unusual to make a call and be told the next available appointment is in a month. The other day, when trying to get a newly diagnosed breast cancer client an appointment to get started on treatment, I realized how increasingly numbing, insensitive and cumbersome the process has become for patients.
Large specialty centers have their process for new patients. Imagine you have just received the result and are told to call the center for an appointment. You are overwhelmed, shocked and frightened by the diagnosis but call immediately. The initial number directs you to another number, the new patient coordinator. Nine times out of ten, you will be instructed to leave a message and will be contacted. At one local cancer specialty center, you are instructed not to call again, as it will crowd the voice mail.
So you wait. It can take up to 24 hours to get a call back. For a newly diagnosed cancer patient, this can be so stressful. One client told me, it wasn’t until she got an appointment, that she felt grounded and hopeful.
The coordinators job is to get clinical and insurance information. Once the information is given, the coordinator will have to call back after verifying all the information. No appointment is given until that time. More waiting and stress.
Finally, the call with the appointment and it is two weeks away, if not longer. It doesn’t help to get upset with the coordinator. The more upset a person gets, the less likely an earlier appointment will happen.
What got my attention with my last experience was the institutional disregard for the person’s state of mind of having to wait two more weeks to get treatment for cancer. What about all the talk about treating the whole person?
Care should start immediately. I understand specialists are booked but why not engage a new patient in the system immediately? Assign a social worker to follow up and have a conversation about being diagnosed. Provide support for the upcoming journey with phone calls, information and assistance with maybe moving the appointment.
Create a web portal for new patients and an on line chat room. Engage social media as a tool to remove some of the fear. Why not have the medical provider’s assistant or nurse practitioner send an email? As crazy as this sounds, it is healing for a frightened patient.
I suggest to clients we contact multiple centers for appointments in the hope of finding the earliest appointment. Since I am a firm believer in second opinions, having several appointments set facilitates the process. I also tell clients to call every morning to the scheduler and ask if there has been a cancellation. It sometimes the only way to move an appointment.