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What to Do When Your Doctor Isn’t Calling Back

Kelsey Tyler

A few weeks ago, I woke up with a miserably clogged ear — the kind of clogged where, despite my best efforts, no amount of sound reached my eardrum. After a few semi-soundless days, Q-tipping and ear-dropping only seemed to make the problem worse. I called my primary care doctor to see if she could remedy the clog herself or refer me to a specialist for treatment. The kind receptionist said she’d check with the doc and call me back with an answer that day. Two days went by with no response. Annoyed, I went to urgent care and dropped $150 on a standard earwax-clearing procedure, where a healthcare professional sprays a warm water solution into your ear to clear the clog. At my primary care doctor, I only would have owed a copay.

It’s likely my doctor never even got my message, says Linda Beck, a board certified patient advocate who founded Square One Elder and Health Advocacy. In fact, this sort of communication breakdown happens all the time: “A lot of healthcare providers are incredibly pressed for time and don’t find a way to squeeze these messages into their day.” The complicated phone automation systems used in many healthcare offices don’t always help matters, Beck adds. As a result, it’s not unusual for patient messages to go unanswered.

In extreme scenarios, a doctor’s failure to respond can constitute patient abandonment, such as when a patient makes several unsuccessful attempts to reach their doctor and incurs an injury as a result. A Louisiana judge ruled that a doctor could be found legally liable for medical complications suffered by a patient following an unreturned call.

In a lot of cases — when ears need declogging or birth control refills run out — not hearing back from a doctor is more irritating than life-threatening. Still, patients deserve better. Here’s what you can do when it feels like calling your doc is the equivalent of screaming into the void.

Establish communication protocol

To lower your chances of dealing with an unresponsive doctor, take the preventive step of asking a new healthcare provider about their preferred methods of communication, says David J. Zetter, founder and lead consultant with Zetter HealthCare Management Consultants. Does the physician want all communication to take place through the patient portal? Are scheduling calls the only telephone communication the practice accepts? “I’ve got clients that will not accept any patient calls for script refills, medical record requests and even in some cases, they have to request an appointment through the portal,” Zetter says. “That’s just an example of how things some things may be changing and patients aren’t aware.”

While making a phone call might seem like the fastest and most efficient way to acknowledge a medical query, practices are often busy and understaffed, says Julia Pinckney, a patient advocate and CEO of AmbassaCare. Doctors might not receive all their messages if their schedules are packed or notes get lost in the shuffle. “They’re not going to return the call if they are buried,” she says.

Beck, Zetter and Pinckney are proponents of the patient portal. If the practice has one, utilize it, as it creates a written record of patient needs and requests. “Phone calls are very inefficient, not only for the patient but for the practice,” Zetter says. “Answers can be done much quicker through patient portals. They can get back to people right away.”

Of course, the impetus is on the healthcare professional to emphasize this as the preferred course of patient communication, Beck says.

Be persistent

If you don’t hear back from your healthcare provider within two working days, Beck suggests calling or emailing again. In her experience, reaching out to someone else in the practice, such as another doctor, a physician’s assistant or the practice manager, will expedite the response time.

Recently, after a number of voicemails to her primary care physician went unanswered, Beck wrote a letter explaining her reason for calling — she needed a specialist referral — and dropped it off at the office. She received a call back two hours later. “It got into the doctor’s hands,” Beck says. “You don’t need to belabor the point. I stated what I needed, which is a referral to a specialist, and it was a very clear thing he could hold in his hand.”

Know who you need to talk to

In order to get a call back, it’s important to reach out to the right person (or people). Leaving a voicemail for your physician regarding a prescription refill is not always the most effective course of action, Zetter says. “It should be going through their nurse or the medical assistant,” he says. “They’re the ones that should be handling that, otherwise you’re never going to get a call from that doctor.”

For a clogged ear-level health concern, a prescription request, an insurance coverage question or any other nonemergency situation, Pinckney suggests asking for the nurse. “The nurse can reach out [to the insurance company] and they’re going to have a quicker return time than perhaps you might,” Pinckney says. If a day goes by and you haven’t heard back, don’t hesitate to call the practice manager, who’s responsible for resolving communication issues.

If you have a question about a medication you’re taking, Beck likes communicating directly with pharmacists. They’re well-versed in side effects, dosing guidelines and any potential conflicts with other medications, and they can contact your healthcare provider on your behalf. A call from a pharmacist might be more likely to reach a busy doctor.

Be transparent

When you finally do get face-time (or phone time), it’s appropriate to voice your communication concerns. Whether speaking to your healthcare provider or the practice manager, Pinckney says to share what went wrong. In my case, which ended with an urgent care visit, she suggests saying something like: “This is an unfortunate sequence of events, and ultimately it led to me seeing a physician who does not know me, who does not have a history with me.”

Beck agrees: Be upfront with communication gripes. “They can’t make improvements if they don’t know what the problem is,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s the practice manager who should be overseeing the communication links to make sure everybody is getting the patient communications that they need — and that the patients are getting good care, which includes good, timely communication with your healthcare provider.”

Don’t ditch your primary care physician

I jumped ship to an urgent care facility without so much as a second call to my primary care physician. Don’t follow my lead. Pinckney’s a proponent of keeping primary care physicians as the central hub of your healthcare. “Always coordinate through your primary care physician,” she says. “For the most part, there are specialty care providers that will always require you to go to the primary care physician first.” Plus, a primary care provider has a more comprehensive record of your health history at large, something the ER urgent care does not, and is better suited to provide care simply because they have more information.

At the end of the day, if you’re still getting silence after reaching out multiple times, it might be time for a new doctor. “If you’re not getting good bedside or chair-side service or if the practitioner or practice is rude,” Zetter says, “the patient’s going to go somewhere else.” And they should.

Show Comments (19)
  1. carolyn wade

    How long is it reasonable to sit on hold at the PCP’s office? They have a “team” approach, so to talk to the nurse, it’s the same choice on the phone tree as to leave a message for the doctor.

    I’ve been on hold for over 13 minutes. I hate to hang up and dial again and lose my (perhaps) high place on the lineup.

  2. Debbie

    My pain management doctor had some staff restructuring, The results were a few patients not getting their refills at all. I’ve learned to cope without some of the pain management but I am an able to get return calls for help on detoxing or getting medications. I have made five phone calls in five days with no response at all. I do not understand how this can happen. I would like to find an organization that will help me file a complaint

    1. Linda Secor

      Hello,
      This is currently happening to me as well. No reply. So I have been having horrible withdrawal effects.
      My question is did you file a complaint, and if it helped you find help.
      17 years of pain meds for diagnosed chronic pain then cut off completely. This is not do no harm.
      Anyways…hope to hear what happened to you even though I don’t know you.

  3. violeta

    It happened to me 3 times that specialties didn’t call at all after my doctor referred me to them. I gave up. Problems still persist. But its terrible more, when they didn’t call for my husband’s surgery, which has colon cancer. What are they waiting for, stage 4? After my husband calling them, the justification is that the chief surgeon was on vacation, that he was busy with operations … 2 months had passed since the first findings.

  4. KEJ

    I left a few calls that went unanswered . An angry secretary finally called me back and was upset that I was leaving messages ( Four calls in 24 hours ) . She hung up before I could request an appointment

  5. KARL E JANESKY

    I showed up for a routine Physical in September 2019 and was told I had no such appt. , two days later I received a no show letter , I was having issues so I called once , sometimes twice a day and when I finally did get a callback it was to tell me to stop leaving messages. I eventually ran out of my prescriptions . My last call, I was told they had no record of my ever being a patient. Never was able to secure an appointment and I had the same PCP for thirty years !

  6. Upset doctor

    Patients expect their doctor to be their concierge doctor.
    If you call your lawyer, they charge you / minute but the entitlement of patients leads them to believe the doctor “owes” them a call back immediately – for free.

    If you want your doctor to call you back immediately, you need to find yourself a concierge doctor.

    If it is an urgent situation, you need to go to an urgent care.

    1. KARL E JANESKY

      Immediately is not expected, but a return call is expected.

    2. Rosie M Thomas

      I don’t expect special treatment I expect pain relief. My hand surgeon needs a test done in order to perform the surgery. The pain has increased and I see none coming without this doctors help. Now what do I do?

  7. Jessica K

    What if it ends up resulting in death? grandma ended up dying primary never answered calls before calling an ambulance

  8. Fay

    I am so frustrated!! An ultrasound ordered by my OB/GYN revealed a cyst on each ovary and a uterine tumor; he told me that I needed to have my uterus and both ovaries removed. A CA-125 test indicated an elevated risk of cancer. Due to the size of the cysts, tumor, and the CA-125 test results, my general practitioner also recommended surgery. I was then referred to a gynecologic oncologist who performed a very thorough exam and said that the left ovarian cyst was putting pressure on my uterus. Per the oncologist’s directive, I had a pelvic and trans-vaginal ultrasound 53 days ago. I have made multiple follow-up calls to the oncologist and still have not been able to speak to anyone about the scan results. Does anyone have recommendations? If so, thank you.

    1. Abbey

      Go to the office that did the scans & ask for copies of your report. Quit wasting your time trying to talk to them. After you have your scan reports – get copies of all your other records & imaging & pathology reports, etc – immediately. In the meantime – find the largest Cancer Center Hospital in your state. Every state has one. Google it. Call your insurance & be sure they work with that center. Look at their Cancer Surgeons by specialty. (In your case Gynecological Surgeons) Google them individually. Search out & read Patient reviews of these individual Drs. Pick one. Make an appt to see that surgeon. Make sure they get your imaging, path, & records. Then inform your Gyn what has happened & that you are seeing this other surgeon. If you need a referral to that surgeon then get it through your gyn or primary.
      But get it. Even if you have to walk into the ER of that hospital & simply say “it hurts here” – then once you’re admitted into the ER – when they take your history – tell them whats happened. They’ll do more workup & in the end you can request a referral to the surgeon you picked that works out of that hospital. Covid has screwed up timelines to surgery – but this seems odd at 53 days with no communication! There’s something wrong with that office.

  9. Robin Allen

    My doctor’s office says they are canceling appointments because if Covid. This is a cardiologist. I had tests a month ago and still have not got an appointment to go over tests in a timely manner but have to wait for 6weeks after tests were done,

  10. Dorothy Castaneda

    I took my daughter to a number of gastroenterologist offices and finally found one that seemed like they would help.My daughter is non verbal autistic. The doctor gave her medicine and said see you in a year.This older doctor said no 6 months I think because of her autism this doctor doesn’t want to deal with her.Why didn’t he say it right away?I have gotten him copies of her x-rays from two hospitals to look at per his request.He never responded when I asked his thoughts on the x-rays.He even put in an order for a x-ray himself.I got it taken and left a phone message and patient portal message about the results.They said he got the message and was with patients that he would get back to me when he had time. Is he dumping my daughter ?Why send her for an x-ray then ignore me?I want my child’s constipation taken care of.She had a fecal impaction years ago and I want to see if it’s happened again.Am I asking too much to hear the results and this doctors opinion.Can doctors drop handicapped patients when their still treating them for a condition?

    1. MKH

      Please look up “patient abandonment.” This sounds like a possible case.

  11. Barbara Hitman

    This is the first time my PCP has disappointed me. I called for a refill and in a week, no response. Now he wants to see me in the office. It is winter and a lot of snow now, Feb. I feel it is wrong to hold medication hostage for a medical chronic condition.
    Date: 2/ 8/ 2021 I only take 2 medications.

  12. Alicia Kinsey

    I’m finding that Doctors are over booked. Seems greedy to me. I mean if you don’t have time for patients, you have to many. Let’s be real here. Doctors schedule patients every 10-15 minutes then claim they don’t have enough time to return calls. So as a waitress I should be greedy and pick up more tables then I can handle but expect you doctors to wait for your food and leave a 30% tip by your standards? Be real, Doctors have assistants, and front office staff to go through those calls and get back to most of them. Doctors don’t diagnosis over the phone. Me I’m waiting for a return call about being seen for possible rib stress fracture. But looks like a nice expensive ER visit because no one could be bothered with my call. So much for that hipacratic oath….

  13. Karen Aranjo

    I have called and left messages that were never returned. My gastroenterologist has a recorded message that says to email or leave a text. I have done so for over 6 weeks.?she is not in a group and the office she had has a different practice there now. I need meds and a follow up appointment for myself and my husband. I am really frustrated. If she left doesn’t she have an obligation to inform me she left the area or stopped practicing? I have no way to get the notes and other info I need to even take to a new Dr. I have a ppo/ Medicare advantage plan.

  14. Lori

    I have a similar situation with a dentist who left when my 4 year old was waiting to get a crown and now her tooth might not be saved. If anyone can help it’s a long story! They refused to give me her records and got charged in lies! Need help I don’t want this to happen to another child!

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