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BY STEPHANIE SISK
We’ve all had that annoying experience where someone is talking on their cell phone: at the next table at the restaurant, in line at the grocery store or bank, on the train. Sadly, the doctor’s office is not immune either.
Aside from the disapproving dirty look, there’s not much to be done about louts at Walgreens who want to carry on about what to bring to Aunt Terry’s brunch. But doctors can — and should — set some rules for personal phone use in their office.
You might remember reading earlier this year about the music director of the New York Philharmonic. When a concert-goer’s cell phone began to ring loudly, he actually stopped the performance to glare at the offender.
Hear, hear, I say. And encore!
In the early days of cell phones, it seemed common sense and courtesy guided cell phone use, with calls handled discreetly and largely out of earshot. Today, many callers exhibit little self-discipline at all, believing that any and all of their calls (though not the other guy’s) are important to take no matter the time or place.
A New York Times article recounted the experience of an optometrist in Munster, IN, who had patients taking calls while he was treating them. Some were actual emergencies, but Neil Gailmard remembers one patient who had to pause during the exam to take a call to set up dinner plans for the evening.
“You’re stuck in an awkward situation,” he was quoted. But when patients talked too long, he would offer to leave the room. “I find that gets them to hang up,” he said. “They don't want you to leave.”
Rhonda Savage, a dentist and now CEO of the consulting firm Miles and Associates who was a speaker at the recent Midwinter Meeting, describes cell phone abuse in the office as a growing and serious matter, especially among younger patients and staff. She recalls that during her years in practice, her approach was firm when a patient’s cell rang.
“This is not a good time,” Dr. Savage would say. “You’ll need to hold that call,” though she noted the need for flexibility in the case of a true emergency call.
Astonishing as it is for a patient to take a call during an exam, another battleground is the waiting room, which should telegraph a calm atmosphere, free from loud or frivolous cell conversations.
“No cell phones” signs seem to be a common way to alert patients to expectations, but some of the signs on the market are terse or unattractive. I found two sites (shutterstock.com and safetysigns.com) that offer above-average signs or customized signs to get the message across. The signs could even be put in a nice frame and placed on tables and other key areas.
Still, patients can be oblivious to signs, said Dr. Savage, who stresses the front desk staff must intervene to keep the waiting room free of inconsiderate callers.
Staffers should ask the caller to come to the desk, then privately ask them to end a call and explain that cell phone use is not allowed, Dr. Savage said. She encourages staff to invite the caller to step outside but remain near the door if they must use the phone.
The doctor also must lead by setting a clear policy for staff, said Dr. Savage. She labels cell phone use by team members “time embezzlement” that undermines productivity, efficiency and focus on the patient.
Organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management recommend that dentists and doctors have a written policy in place, with employees signing on, that states when and how cell phones can be used in the office.
While written or verbal policies are useful, Dr. Savage said leadership, clear expectations and enforcement are the best tools to corral cell use in the office. Doctors or office managers who pull rank and flaunt the rules erode the sense of respect, fairness and integrity needed to run an effective, healthy office where the real focus should be on the patient, she said.
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