Have you experienced the frustration of trying to get your doctor to respond to a phone call (or an e-mail)? It’s a very common complaint. Of course, there are two sides to this issue. Doctors say that they are too busy to sit on the phone for extended conversations, particularly if the issue is minor or could be handled by a nurse or physician’s assistant (PA). Also, insurers, including Medicare, generally don’t reimburse them for their time on the phone. 

But consumers argue that follow-up phone or e-mail conversations with their doctors are important when they have questions about serious issues, such as side effects they may be experiencing from chemotherapy or other medications. 

To ensure you can reach your doctor, use the steps that have worked for me…

• Make a deal. When I asked my primary care physician, who is a solo practitioner in my local community, how I could reach him for questions, he gave me his cell-phone number­—his preferred method of communicating. I can use it if I have a very pressing problem, particularly outside normal office hours—but I’m respectful of not calling at all hours of the day. Otherwise, I call his office and leave a message for his nurse. I explain the issue and the nurse usually responds with an answer within an hour or so or soon after office hours begin, often having discussed it with the doctor. Many times, my doctor personally calls me back to further discuss or help me with the issue. This type of deal works extremely well with solo practitioners or those in small group practices.

If your doctor is part of a large group or specialty practice: Communicating directly with him/her can be more complicated—and maddening. It’s not uncommon for specialty practices, such as dermatology, oncology, cardiology or neurology, to have 20 or more physicians and an equal number of PAs and nurses on their rosters. Each doctor often sees four or more patients an hour. With this type of busy doctor, I recommend asking during your first visit how you can reach him directly if you have a serious issue. To show that you plan to be respectful of his time, ask if there is a best time to call. If the doctor says he doesn’t give out such contact information, ask if there is always a doctor on call to speak with if a serious matter comes up. Note: Even if you do have your doctor’s number, it’s smart to ask this in the event you cannot reach him. 

• Ask about special call-in times. Many ob/gyn practices, for example, set aside an hour each day to accept phone calls directly from patients. Other specialty practices have times when the doctor or a staff member will respond to e-mails. And many practices now have their own patient portals through which you can contact the doctor or other office personnel. Ask your doctor what his practice offers. 

• Be reasonable.Is speaking directly to your doctor really necessary? After I had brain surgery a few years ago, I realized that my surgeon’s PA was more helpful with follow-up issues, such as pain management, than the surgeon. But if you need an explanation of test results or have a concern about a recurring problem, you should expect your doctor to respond. Chances are good that he will get back to you if you set up a plan. If he doesn’t, it’s probably time to find a new doctor.