Saturday, December 6, 2014

Top 3 Tips for Patients to Survive the Holiday Crunch

By Starla Fitch, MD

We all know the holiday rush can induce stress. But did you know that the last six weeks of the year are notoriously the most stressful weeks in the medical world?

Here’s how it shakes out:  Doctors and healthcare providers have pushed through the past 10 months toward the end of the year, just like you. They’ve managed to get their kids back to school, found last year’s wool sock stash, and determined which gas company will offer the most reasonable heating bills this year.

And then, it happens.

The phones, which were a little quiet during the back-to-school rush, start ringing. Patients who were told back in February that they needed to have surgery are now emailing the scheduling office to get on the surgery list. Patients who were told they needed to see a specialist six months ago want to be worked in for an appointment ASAP.

What gives?

It’s the annual phenomenon of when holidays and healthcare collide. It happens every year.

Patients come up for air after a brief summer solstice and the back-to-school rush. They realize they have paid this year’s deductible on their insurance. Or that their insurance coverage may change in January. Or worse, that their jobs may be in jeopardy and they may not be properly insured in the new year.

Meanwhile, the steady stream of patients who have been coming in to see doctors has resulted in an already full surgery or office schedule.

This leads to three problems:

  1. There is a big batch of patients who need tending to, who want to be seen yesterday and have their myriad of problems “cured” by December 31st.
  2. There is an already full schedule in the doctor’s office and operating room.
  3. There are a community of doctors who, already pushed to the limit and reporting record numbers of burnout, are now asked to squeeze in more patients, more procedures, more work hours into their already maxed out days.

My guess is that most patients don’t realize this. In fact, when I told a non-medical friend of mine about this, his comment was, “That reminds me. I need to schedule a procedure to be done myself. I better give my doctor’s office a call.”

This problem is well known in medical circles. Just last week, I asked a surgical colleague if she had hurt herself, as I saw her gingerly limping down the hallway of the hospital. She replied that she needed to have hip replacement surgery, but wasn’t allowed to take time off until January due to the end-of-the-year crunch. Rather than being surprised by this, I merely nodded.

What’s the answer to this dilemma?

I’m not sure there is a good answer. At this time of year, medical professionals have a phrase that we repeat often:  Patients are not always patient.

I’d like to offer some advice to you as a doctor who has family members who are caught in the game of “Can we get it all done by the end of the year?”

  1. Be flexible. Ask if there is a waiting list for patients who cancel at the last moment. If so, put your name on the list and give them your best contact number or email.
  2. Be polite. It’s nobody’s fault, least of all your doctor’s or their secretary, that all available surgery times have been spoken for already this year. Those people who made “A’s” in the plan-ahead department were in the office in August, booking their surgeries for November.
  3. Be creative. Can you alter your schedule to be available when your doctor and the operating room have an opening? Can you ask your employer for permission to work from home for a few days to recover if your procedure is done mid-week?

All of these strategies will endear you to your doctors and their staff. It may come as a surprise, but often the healthcare workers are also stuck in the same end-of-year bind. With an already overloaded schedule, nurses and doctors are also needing to sneak in to see their healthcare providers, just like you.

Is there anything we can take away from this, other than to make a note in our calendar next August to plan ahead?

Let’s all take a step back for a moment and remember what the end of year and the holidays are really about.

This time of year is a time to be thankful for all that we have:  our families, our friends, our health (beyond that procedure you need to schedule in the near future), and our world. It’s a time to reflect on the strides we have made in the past year, the struggles we’ve overcome, and the accomplishments we’re proud to have made.

And it’s a time to look forward to the future. To embrace another year of waking up with the sun shining on our faces, the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen, the hugs of our children greeting us as we pour the breakfast cereal.

So surely there is a way we can all come together and make our healthcare and our holidays brighter. 

Starla Fitch, MD, is a practicing, board-certified ophthalmologist who specializes in oculoplasticsurgery. After surviving life-altering burnout herself, she established lovemedicineagain.com, an online community to help other medical professionals reconnect with their passion for the practice. She is a featured blogger for Huffington Post, where “The Secret Lives of Doctors” went viral, with over 98K hits, and KevinMD.com. She has been asked to share her wisdom in an upcoming TEDx talk, is a certified life coach and makes regular CBS affiliate appearances.

If you’d like to follow Dr. Fitch, check her out on her website www.lovemedicineagain.com and social media: Facebook as LoveMedicineAgain, Linkedin as StarlaFitchMD, Twitter as @StarlaFitchMD and/or Google+ https://plus.google.com/109666600200662310871/posts.

Remedy For Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use To Find Meaning In Medicine is now available for purchase on Amazon.