Dr. Steven Schlozman is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the Co-Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry. His first novel, “The Zombie Autopsies,” was published in 2011, and his affinity for zombies might explain his mind-numbing rage at being stuck on hold all the time. Readers, have you had muzak musings of your own lately? Please share in the comments below.
By Dr. Steven Schlozman
I am a physician practicing in Boston. I do my best to get my work done as carefully and efficiently as possible.
I am writing to you right now, in real time, as I enter my…wait for it…38th minute on hold with Blue Cross/Blue Shield in my attempt to gain approval for a treatment that my patient absolutely needs. No one who knew the details of this case would argue otherwise; not politicians, or business specialists, or cost efficiency specialists, or medical school professors, or anyone really. Neither would anyone deny that the treatment that I am trying to procure for my patient is costly. Finally, no one would deny that it is legions more costly to not treat my patient with the treatment for which I am now sitting on hold and trying to procure.
Still, here I sit. I sat initially for 26 minutes, at which point the very pleasant muzak stopped and a recorded and maddeningly soothing female voice told me that I would “have to call back later.” Then the line went dead.
So I called back later.
I called back exactly 12 seconds later, and that was now 42 minutes ago. I mean, 42 minutes, in real time, as I write this letter. I have patients in the waiting room who will understandably expect me to get to them soon. I also know that there are those who will tell me that this is what I signed up to do for a living.
But they’re wrong. I did not sign up to do this for a living. There are no courses in medical school about how to spend one’s time on hold while patients need your help.
Minute 58 just passed, by the way.
And yes, I am writing this letter here at my desk, when I could be doing other things.
Except I can’t. I’ve written all my notes, called back all my messages, and….I can’t listen to my messages or renew another patient’s prescriptions or reschedule a kid who can’t come see me because of Bar Mitzvah practice or a soccer game or call a school counselor or speak with another doctor or do all sorts things that could really help and make a difference for patients because I am still on hold and have to be, on the off chance that a living and sentient being will actually speak to me. .
I could have a nurse wait on hold, or perhaps an administrative assistant, but that means I will be interrupted in the middle of actually tending to a human being when a living person does happen to show up on the other end of the phone. That’s not good.
Wait! The same message just came on:
“We’re sorry…this call is being disconnected.”
They hung up.
I just called back. Clock starts now. Two minutes in so far. More muzak.
So, why would anyone do this? Why put up with this nonsense any longer than the time I’d give to filling up my hamster’s water bottle?
Well, it seems to me that the hamsters can be kept alive in about two seconds of care with relatively little bureaucratic oversight.
My human patient, though, now has endured two hang-ups from his insurer, and…
Irony – the muzak at….13 minutes… is a soothing and mind-numbing version of “You’ve got a friend.”
So, I am going to end this letter now. I’m still on hold, but if you bothered to read this you’ve probably finished your coffee or you need to pee or something. I need to pee also, by the way. But that will have to wait.
Help. I love being a doctor.
But this isn’t doctoring.