Talking to Your Doctor: You Still Didn't Get Back to Me.

MaryAnn and her physician ended the conversation with what in her mind was a clearly defined next step. Her test results should be in the doctor’s hands by Thursday, and he promised to give her a call by Friday.

Well, maybe “promise” wasn't quite the word her doctor used. But that was what MaryAnn heard. And what she expected.

Friday came and passed, and MaryAnn never had a call from him. She didn't really expect him to call her over the weekend, but half-hoped he might give her a quick call on Saturday. Halfway through Monday, MaryAnn was feeling pretty frustrated.

Has your doctor ever promised to get back to you and then didn’t? Or, maybe a better question might be: Does your doctor ever get back to you when he/she promises?

Sure, everybody has good intentions. And doctors are certainly busy people. But still… a promise, is a promise. Or at least it sounded like a promise. And you're the one waiting on test results. Or a prescription. Or an answer to a question.

Here’s what to do the next time it feels like your doctor has left you hanging:

Check your hearing. Start by asking yourself: Did I hear correctly? I am not making an excuse for your doctor, but consider this: Busy people sometimes talk out loud. And they don't always articulate very clearly. What sounded to you like “I will” or “I promise” may have in your doctor’s mind been something closer to “I will try to call” or even “I will call if I see anything of concern.”

Watch the storytelling. When humans are faced with a gap between expectation and what there are actually experiencing, our minds have a way of filling in that gap with a story. So be careful. If you hear yourself saying something like, “He/she doesn't care about me” or “Maybe there is something really bad going on” or "I am being disrespected again” — or other stories that end in catastrophe or you being the victim — this may be a sign that your mind is going to town on you. In other words, take a step back. Don't take it personally and don't turn this into a catastrophe. Save yourself some stress.

Ask yourself: Did this place my healthcare at risk or just annoy me? Let’s get some perspective here. Sure, not getting a call back is a potential inconvenience, to be sure. However, take a step back and consider the level of seriousness. For example, if you have a potential infection, and may need to begin treatment, then you need the results back ASAP. On the other hand, some routine testing may be able to wait a couple of days if the doctor is busy. A realistic perspective means you will be in a better position to decide how to respond.

If you need an answer, take the lead. Don't assume you are powerless here. If you want to know the results, and you haven't heard back from your doctor in what you feel is a reasonable amount of time — including later on the day you expected to hear the results — then call your physician’s office. Let his/her staff know that you are hoping to have your test results that day. Someone may be able to give you the results, or leave a message for the doctor, or follow up if they don't have the results yet. Use the same approach in other situations, such as when you are waiting on a prescription refill.

Clarify your expectations with your doctor. In the future, it might help to make sure you and the doctor are in sync, even if he/she is rushing on to the next patient. This can be as simple as: “So you are saying that you will have the results on Wednesday and you will call me by the end of day on Thursday. Is that correct?” You doctor can either affirm or clarify. While this doesn’t guarantee follow up, at least you know you are ending the conversation on the same page.

Consider having a talk with your doctor. If your doctor frequently doesn’t get back to you as promised, and/or if this has resulted in specific consequences, e.g. going without a prescription, an important question left unanswered, starting treatment later than necessary, then this is definitely a discussion to have. When you do, make it clear what your expectations were, what happened instead, and how you were affected. Something like: “I need to talk to you about the way we are communicating. It was my understanding you would be in touch with me on _____. I didn’t hear from you. Because of that, here’s what happened.”

Communication between you and your doctor is a two-way process. Sometimes with some rough spots along the way. Keep things in perspective. React, but don't overreact.

To learn more on this topic:
DOCTOR DISCUSSION GUIDE: Talking to Your Doctor About Neuropathy
Finding a Doctor—Tip 5: What to Do with Your Doctor/Educator Face-Time
Doctor Discussion Guide: Better Doc Talk Starts Here