Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Medical Administrator?

Answer: Not the patient.

As covered in previous blogs, when navigating the medical system, bully/incompetent doctors are just one of the many hurdles you face. Other huge hurdles that we patients face include those administrators whose job, it seems, is to make life difficult for us.

As if dealing with illness and life-threatening conditions weren't enough.

I am beginning this posting with a caveat: most of the medical staff I've encountered have been helpful and kind. Most of the time, my doctor visits have been made more pleasant and relaxing -- all because of the administrative staff -- such as receptionists, medical assistants, records people -- who do have a difficult job and often have to deal with rude patients.

However, it's more fun for readers if I trash the administrators who have overstepped their bounds.

And more than anything, I'm hoping that this posting can help you stand up to rude administrators who seem bent on placing hurdles in your way or being rude and inappropriate during your visit to the office. I speak from experience and will discuss two memorable altercations I had with administrative bullies.

Ironically, I'm grateful for these experiences because they taught me the incredible power patients have.

Show Me the Money

When dealing with a potential or existing medical problem, the last thing you need to hear is a medical staff member discussing money matters with you. This type of insensitivity to your needs is unacceptable.

In my case, I was in my surgeon's waiting room only a few days after being told that an MRI revealed something suspicious, and I was scared -- like crap in your pants scared -- that it was a recurrence. Fresh in my memory was my great friend dying of breast cancer only a few months before, and I was deep in thought, wondering if I would share the same fate. My surgeon was going to examine me and schedule a biopsy.

The receptionist interrupted my panic-stricken what-if scenarios by calling me up to her desk. Imagine my disbelief when she looked in my tear-reddened eyes and informed me that I owed some money and would I like to pay it now or later. She started talking in a not-so-low voice about the amount I owed. In shock, I stammered something about being billed later. I couldn't psychologically deal with one more stressor.

I sat back down, crushed. I was embarrassed, wondering if others in the waiting room overheard this conversation. The tears of humiliation stung my sleep-deprived eyes.

Then my fighting spirit took over. I wanted my dignity and self-respect back. I walked back to the receptionist and told her in a not-so-low voice, "You know, I am grappling with a possible breast cancer recurrence, and I can't believe you have the audacity to discuss my bill at a time like this!" Before she could stop stammering, I added, "You and anyone in your office are never, ever to discuss anything bill-related with me in this office."

Now it was she who was crushed. I turned around abruptly and got back to thinking my fate. She and the rest of the administrative staff treated me like gold that day. One would think I was a celebutant. And I felt empowered, even though I was bracing for terrible news.

The Dreaded Record Keeper

In my posting A Train Car Named Quagmire, I discuss how I fought to get records transferred from one physician's office to another. Records departments simply amaze me. They are able to provide services and obtain records lickety-split when a doctor requests them, but not when a patient does.

In my case, the enemy was the center where I had follow-up mammograms and any pre-surgery labwork. Interestingly, whichever individual happened to be at the front desk was always rude and cold to me. I found it intimidating and passively tolerated their mistreatment and utter disrespect. Luckily, the technicians were nice, but the technicians unfortunately had nothing to do with ensuring records were delivered when they were supposed to be delivered.

My mammogram films and report were supposed to be ready for me to pick up before I saw my doctor who always wanted to see them during my visit (I did call the records department ahead of time and followed all the protocols). Yet, about 50% of the time they weren't ready, and I had to go to the doctor sans mammogram, which arrived a few days later.

And for someone who has been through a cancer experience, waiting a few days is like waiting an eternity.

I called the center to complain about the mishandling of these mammograms and, after speaking to several impolite personnel, I finally got a friendly staff member. I told her that since I already had breast cancer and very dense breast tissue, my mammograms needed careful inspection by my surgeon on time and that such mishaps could one day cost me my life.

She said, "Aw, honey, you're not likely to get breast cancer again." I volleyed back: "How do you know that? You can't tell a patient that! It is vital that your office ensures prompt and accurate delivery of my mammogram films and results." (Turns out that years later after my preventive mastectomy and reconstruction, the labwork indicated I had oodles of precancerous cells and would've had a recurrence in a few years.)

I asserted myself to my surgeon -- I politely insisted that, with my history of breast cancer, it wasn't prudent for me to to get follow-up mammograms at an unreliable place and from now on, I wanted my mammograms done at the hospital's far superior breast center. The stakes were too high, I explained, to allow this center to determine my medical fate.

He agreed, and I never had such problems again. Victory!

Fast-forward a few years later. I needed to go to this center for pre-surgery bloodwork. I was getting my preventive double mastectomy with reconstruction, so it was a stressful time for me. My doctor sent the center an electronic referral so I wouldn't need a hard copy. So I showed up a week before surgery, as directed, without a hard copy referral.

By now I was prepared for the staff's lack of respect, and I was determined to not tolerate abuse.

Sure enough, the receptionist rudely insisted I needed a hard copy referral -- even though she had printed out the electronic version! She rudely directed me to an intake person at another desk, who coldly said the center couldn't do labwork without a hard copy referral.

I told her that I was having major surgery in a week and needed the labwork ASAP. She responded that the center would do the labwork, but only if I signed a form agreeing to pay for the procedure should my insurance not cover it because the referral was electronic.

(No, it doesn't make sense to me either.)

She shoved the form toward me, and that's where my civil disobedience kicked in. I told her, "You know, every time I come to this office, I am treated rudely and with disrespect. I demand respect. I am having major surgery next week, and I followed the correct protocol. So I refuse to sign it."

Her eyes widened in shock, and then she scribbled something on the form. I asked her what she was writing, and she said "Patient refuses to sign form." Pleased with my self-advocacy, I said, "Good!"

I got my bloodwork that day and didn't pay a cent.

When I relayed this interaction to my friends, they said they never knew they could refuse to sign such a form.

Well, now they -- and you -- know. While we want to be civil and treat medical staff with respect, when we find ourselves bullied by them, we don't have to passively comply.

Your voice needs to be heard, and you simply cannot tolerate disrespect from administrators.

Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris University Illinois in the Chicago area. She can be contacted at and


  1. Damn girl. You go! I didn't know that either about the form. Best part: "When I relayed this interaction to my friends, they said they never knew they could refuse to sign such a form."

    That totally needs to be a pull-out quote, although sadly, I don't know how to make one on a blog.

  2. Thanks, Jeannie, for your comment. Yep, I didn't even know I could refuse until the words blurted out from my mouth. I think we as patients can feel empowered about this, knowing we can just say NO.

  3. Good for you for standing up to these insensitive people. It's amazing the hassle you can get from medical staff. All the more reason that we need a single payer health care system now.