Running a community oncology medical practice often reminds me of a corner drug store in the 1940s—once that front door is unlocked, all are welcome to enter, and in my case it's not just patients, but families of patients, former patients, future patients, lost patients from the podiatrist across the hall, even nonpatients, also known as drug reps. Although both buildings have similar doors, unlike the behemoth cancer center, the rest of my office is puny.
The line of petitioners a busy oncology practice attracts each day has it easy, for here I am as exposed as a prairie dog in a parking lot. Anyone with a gripe can cross my threshold with ease and demand satisfaction, or on an ideal day, give me the thumbs up. Even if my secretary were to tell a little white lie (which, by the way, she claims she would never do, bless her) all one has to do is travel a few steps to see that I actually am at work today and, unless under the influence of some previously undiagnosed personality disorder, ready to answer all questions with a smile.
“Yes, ma’am, the doctor is in today.” Yes, but is he available?
Of course I am—my plan is working perfectly.
You see, I believe cancer doctors have a duty to be accessible to patients as much as possible. Taking treatment for cancer is, to say the least, an intense experience, sometimes an ordeal, and oncologists must be diligent in keeping everyone up to date on test results, logistics, complications, and on good news as well as bad. This requires basically unlimited access—to me. If I was living with cancer it would drive me nuts to have difficulty reaching my oncologist. When you’re in pain or vomiting you need answers now, not later. Patients shouldn’t have to wonder, “Just when exactly is my message, stuck on the bulletin board at nine a.m., going to be returned?”
We all know that doctors need what our healthcare gurus call “nonphysician providers” in order to survive: nurses, secretaries, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. Heaven knows we are grateful for their expertise and enthusiasm, but in my field there comes a time when the boss, the leader of the team, the one who signed off on the master plan, must face the questions and allay the fears of those who are living with cancer. I am that person, and hopefully all oncologists consider it a privilege, as I do, to be given this responsibility. I have all the time in the world to help you, even if I have to remove every clock in the building. If you can’t find me, if I arrange my practice so that a wall always separates you from me, then my career is a fraud. After all, as I like to remind my nurses, “They aren’t paying me to model the latest fashions.”
So please remember the next time you find yourself standing at the office window or twisting the telephone cord while on hold, don’t be shy about asking for your doctor, and don’t let anyone give you the bum’s rush. Whether they learn this fact early or late, good doctors understand that the more available they are to their patients, the more patients will avail themselves of their unique talents.