E-Patient Update:  When Your Tech Fails, Own It!

I am reasonably comfortable with my primary care practice which, though not exactly chi-chi – no latte machine in the lobby! — does a reasonably good job with the basics of scheduling, payment, referrals and the like.  And I also like that my PCP is part of a multispecialty group linked together by an athenahealth EMR and portal, which makes it easier to coordinate my care.

But recently, I’ve run into some technical problems with the practice portal, repeatedly and inconveniently. And rather than take action, apologize or even acknowledge the problem on an executive level, the group appears to be doing nothing whatsoever to address the issue.

The issue I’m having is that while the portal is supposed to let you schedule appointments online, my last two didn’t show up in the group’s live schedule. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. One of the appointments was to see a neurologist for help with blinding migraines, and trying to attend the non-existent meeting was a nightmare.

Because I needed my neurologist, I scraped myself out of bed, put on an eye mask to avoid extra light exposure – migraine makes you terribly light-sensitive – and had my husband guide me to the car. But when I walked into the lobby (peeking out from under the mask to avoid crashing into things) I was told that they had nothing for me on the schedule.

Almost crying at this point, and with migraine-induced tears streaming down my cheeks, I begged them to squeeze me in, but they refused. To add insult to injury, they all but told me that it must have been my fault that the appointment booking didn’t take. There was no “I’m sorry this happened” whatsoever, nor any suggestion that their technology might be glitchy. If I hadn’t been so sick I might have gotten into a screaming match with the supercilious receptionist, but given my condition I just slinked away and went back to bed.

I’ve since learned, from a much nicer clerk at the affiliated primary care practice, that the group has been getting scores of calls from similarly aggrieved patients whose time had been wasted – and health needs unmet. “Tell the doctor, so she can tell the practice management committee,” she told me. “This is happening all the time.”

Of course, because I write about health IT, I realize that practice leaders may be struggling with issues that defy an easy fix, but I’m still disappointed with their failure to respond publicly. There are many steps they could have taken, including:

* Putting a warning on their practice website, and (if possible) the portal that the scheduling function has issues and to double-check that their appointment registered
* Disabling the scheduling function entirely until they’re reasonably certain it works
* Putting a sign in on the practice’s front desk alerting patients about the problem
* Updating the practice’s “hold” message with an advisory

And that’s just what came to mind immediately. They could do postcards, email messages, letters, robocalls…I don’t care if they drive around town with a guy who shouts the message into a megaphone. I just want expect them to take responsibility and treat my time and health with respect. Sure, tech will go south, but if it does, own it! There’s no excuse for ignoring problems like these.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.