Patients are entitled to receive medical advice 24 hours a day. If you call your doctor at 3 a.m., you will reach a physician who will advise you. Of course, it may not be your own personal physician as this individual cannot be expected to be available 365 days a year until he retires. Physicians partner with colleagues who share on-call responsibility for evenings, holidays and weekends. For example, my gastroenterology group has three physicians who take turns during the off ours to be available for our patients.
Here are some tips for patients who are seeking advice after hours from the on-call physician.
When possible, call your doctor before sundown.
I advise against calling the doctor after hours for a question that only your own physician can answer, unless an emergent situation is suspected. For example, the on-call physician will not know what the next step will be if next week’s colonoscopy is negative.
If you call after hours for advice on a medical issue that has been present for weeks or months, then don’t expect a magic bullet response. When my partner’s patient calls me after hours because he has had 2 months of nausea, it’s unlikely that I can solve this on the phone with a patient I don’t know, when my partner hasn’t figured it out after a month of office visits and diagnostic testing.
Have mercy on us! Reserve after hour phone calls for truly urgent matters. Realize we may have been awakened multiple times throughout the night with hospital phone calls, or even made a midnight run to the emergency room. Sunday morning is not when your doctor will welcome a conversation on flatulence.
Be reasonable. If you call thinking that your college student who is home for winter break needs some Nexium to calm his overheated stomach, don’t expect a prescription if your kid is not our patient.
It’s best to direct your inquiries during daylight hours to the physician who knows you best. Of course, emergencies can occur at any time. If you develop a medical urgency, or you are uncertain if the issue can wait until the office is open, then please call us. We never want you delay contacting us about urgent condition, which might delay your treatment. If the medical matter ends up being non-emergent – no foul. You guys aren’t doctors. What’s routine to us may understandably be concerning to you.
Let’s see what you’ve learned. Which of the following hypothetical scenarios merit a late night call to the doctor?
- My hemorrhoid doesn’t feel right. I know it’s 2 a.m., but I thought I should call now when it is easy to reach a doctor.
- I had four episodes of rectal bleeding since dinner and I’m feeling a little dizzy. I think it will pass. If I call the doctor he might make me go to the hospital and miss the family BBQ party tomorrow.
- Wow! This Wellness Festival is awesome! I know it’s Sunday, but I’m going to call my doctor now to ask which probiotic-fortified kale chips to buy.
If you enjoyed this post, call me. Day or night.
Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.
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