After hours calls to doctors

By Tom Fortner • Published: March 14th, 2007
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Has this ever happened to you? It’s the middle of the night, and you need a doctor.

Or maybe you don’t, because that tightness in your chest could just be indigestion from the pepperoni pizza you ate and not the telltale sign of a heart attack.

For many Americans, their most likely recourse for after-hours medical complaints is to call their doctor’s offices. Most medical practices have a doctor on call for such purposes. But chances are you won’t talk directly to a doctor, but rather to a call screener with the doctor’s answering service, who can then summon the doctor if necessary.

Here’s one of the first questions you’re likely to be asked: “Is this an emergency?”

And there’s the rub, according to recent research from family physicians at the University of Minnesota.

They say patients aren’t really in a position to determine which problems are bona fide emergencies and which can safely wait until the office opens in the morning.

In their study of after-hours calls to a university-based family medicine clinic, the researchers found ten percent were not forwarded to a physician because the caller didn’t describe the situation as urgent. Yet in following up on these calls, the researchers found that three of the patients had been harmed by their failure to reach a physician and one-quarter had experienced pain or discomfort because of delayed contact.

The study concluded that doctors need to examine the way they handle after-hours calls and remove barriers to physician-patient communication.