Hospitals and doctors' offices are busy places where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But Dr. Marie Savard, ABC News medical contributor, says most patients aren't comfortable speaking up to get the attention they need.
When many patients call their doctors' offices, they give an imprecise description of what's ailing them, Savard says. They say the wrong thing and then they never get to speak to their physician.
Savard says getting your doctor on the phone is a matter of thinking and planning ahead, and then saying exactly the right thing when you're on the phone with the clerical staff.
Here are Savard's five "insider secrets" for getting almost any doctor on the phone.
1. Ask your doctor for the best way to reach him or her.
Don't be afraid to lay down ground rules for getting in contact with your doctor. Find out from them up front what the best way to get a hold of them in an emergency will be. Ask them, personally, on the first appointment, what is the best way to reach them.
2. Giving too much information is good. Be specific about symptoms.
Report symptoms as if they were potentially life-threatening, even though they don't really have to be. If it's the worst pain you've ever had, say that. Give details. Chest pain or difficulty breathing would sound an alarm and might help convince a receptionist or secretary to interrupt a doctor to tell him or her about the call, whereas a stomachache or prescription refill is less time-sensitive.
In practice, my secretary always notified me of acute chest or abdominal pain and a number of other red flags that I taught her to recognize, including shortness of breath, blood clot and dehydration.
3. Set a time frame before hanging up.
Be clear that you need to talk to her or him within a set time frame and would like to avoid an emergency room visit, if possible. You need to get to your point immediately, so, when the medical assistant is taking the phone message, she has the ability to triage the phone call -- to know whether it needs to go to a nurse or a physician.
4. Don't be shy about using a health buddy.
Everyone needs another set of eyes and ears, and another voice to speak up, to deal with our natural denial as patients, and be our advocates.
5. Specifically ask for your doctor on the phone.
Remember, you always have the option of insisting on speaking with the doctor. But if you can't, don't wait for a callback if you believe it's a medical emergency. Be your own advocate and get to the emergency room via a friend or ambulance. All too many people wait for a callback -- and then, it's too late. It's your life on the line; your doctor isn't perfect and simply may not have the time.