Shabby Treatment by a Psychiatrist’s Office

Reader’s Question

I have contacted two different psychiatrists in two different locations and left a message to make an appointment. The first one never answered after two phone calls and I then wrote an e-mail to the office and requested someone to call back. My e-mail was answered by the receptionists (I believe) and said she would personally give the message to the Dr.

It is now 27 days later and no one has contacted me. The other was an e-mail to another doctor requesting an appointment and he ALSO has not called back to acknowledge my request (2 weeks later).

My question: Is this prevalent in the practice of psychiatry to ignore patients with such outrageously bad manners? I personally resent this practice of being treated in a demeaning manner. I have worked in the health field and this is my first experience with seeking mental advice. I find this treatment disgusting — these patients are people seeking emotional help and this shabby treatment should not go unreported. Who do these doctors answer to and will it do any good?

Psychologist’s Reply

The behavior you describe is actually the behavior of the psychiatrist’s office and can include his or her secretaries, appointment schedulers, billing clerks, nurses, and the psychiatrist. This behavior is not considered illegal or unethical although it clearly qualifies as bad manners, bad office procedures, bad community relations, and bad for the office and physician reputation. A private mental health practice has a business side and that’s causing the problems you mentioned. Larger practices have office managers who make policies about returning calls, response time to a patient/client call, and handling emails. In smaller offices, the professional typically makes those policies and guidelines.

In reality, the staff member answering the calls, checking voicemail, or reviewing the email is the first person to make a decision about contacting new patients. From that first contact, the message or request to be contacted may go to another staff member. The professional may rarely participate in this process. In fact, everything you mentioned may be happening without the knowledge of the psychiatrist in the practice.

What can you do? First, you can remember that your first contact with a psychiatrist or mental health professional will actually be contacts with his/her staff. While it’s unfair, they will determine if you receive a callback. If your phone call, email, or voicemail is aggressive, harsh, rude, demanding, etc. — they may elect not to pass your message to the next level of callback. That next staff member — the appointment scheduler, nurse, office manager, etc. — will not know you’ve called. This is why I’m never rude to an answering service. You are more likely to get an appointment if you leave a friendly message or have a friendly conversation with the staff member receiving your call.

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What else can you do? If all attempts to contact or make an appointment seem blocked, you can write a letter to the practice to the attention of the Office Manager or to Dr. Whatshisname – Personal. In that letter you can describe your experience with his/her office. You’d be surprised how many professionals don’t know how routine calls are actually handled at their office. A word of caution — if your tone is hostile your letter is likely to be ignored. Try approaching the letter with “I wanted to provide some feedback about my recent contact with your office.” Then discuss your experience without nasty words or comments. You can end the letter by asking for a referral to another psychiatrist if his/her schedule is too busy.

Your experience is not uncommon and has become an everyday experience for most of us when contacting businesses, professionals, helplines, computer support, etc. I recently telephoned tech support to tell them my internet connection was gone. I was first asked if I tried to fix the problem online…

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