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King: Doctors are losing the personal touch
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As child, the doctor came to our house if I was ill. Things change. I remember the day I got sick, and my parents bundled me into their car and drove to the doctor’s office to see him., Today no one expects a doctor to make house calls.

Until recently I saw my doctors in their own offices. Now that too is changing. Fewer and fewer MDs have an independent practice. They are joining clinics where the business is managed by a corporation, and the doctors are, in effect, shareholders.

Not long ago, The Times ran a front-page article announcing the merger of two area practices with The Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville. If I read the article correctly, the attraction is basically electronic record keeping. The doctor is no longer burdened with complicated clerical problems, and in theory he or she can spend more time with the patient.

However, my last doctor spent a great deal of time with all her patients. Moreover, her nurse and receptionist answered the phone in person. They knew every patient by name and were unfailingly helpful.

When the doctor was forced to close down her practice due to financial pressures, the whole community grieved. But as I said, things change.

This is an open letter to the modern medical system. We — your patients — wish you well, but we want to remind you, we are people, not PDF files. When we are sick, we are also likely to be confused, grumpy and impatient. The worst part of this new system is our inability to get through to the doctor or nurse without multiple phone calls, long waits and inadvertent cut-offs.

The voice that answers a patient’s distress call is not even a real person. The caller is given a menu of choices, (which we’re told may have changed) and asked to press this or that number for the next robotic message.

We’re told that if we know the doctors extension, we can sidestep some of this, but there are usually several more hoops to jump through before the caller reaches a living breathing person who may or may not be able to help them. The usual message is, “Please leave a message and we will get back to you before the end of the business day.”

Or, “If this is an emergency please call 911 or go directly to the emergency room.” This is what I had to do back in February when I had a complete collapse. My husband died in September, and I thought I was managing my personal affairs well enough. My body had other ideas. Without warning, my vital signs crashed.

Within two weeks, I was admitted to two different hospitals and saw a dozen or more doctors, none of who knew me or anything about me. Now, almost five months later I still don’t know exactly what happened, but have I have a long list of medications and specialists I’m supposed to see.

Managing all this means spending a lot of time on the phone either listening to a recorded message or on hold for someone who isn’t available. If this transition to an automated medical practice is going to work, something needs to be done.

I don’t think I am alone in this complaint. When I’ve negotiated this maze of phone calls and recorded messages, when I have reached a real doctor and actually sit in his or her office, I almost invariably like the individual, but the overall experience is negative, and this is not conducive to good medicine.

Change is the one true constant and I will adjust, but I have always held the medical profession in great esteem. The unpleasant comments I hear about doctors today grieves me. I suggest the negativity starts when the patient or his family make the initial phone call and hears an automaton say: “Please listen to the following message ...”

Joan King is a Sautee native whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays and at

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