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Are Doctors’ Offices Ready for the I.T. Revolution? A Recent Visit Has Made Me Unsure

March 15, 2016
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Last week I caught the bad fortune of being sick. I rarely get sick, and when I do it’s for 24 hours tops, so when I felt flu-like symptoms starting the day after I came back from HIMSS16 in Las Vegas, and still felt them three days later, I was getting nervous. We all have been sick, so I will spare you the details of what was wrong with me, but finally, last Wednesday, I decided to suck it up and go to the doctor.

Having moved to Manhattan six months ago and not having to see the doctor since that time, I really had no idea which physician’s office to choose from. So after about 30 minutes of research on the likes of Google, Healthgrades, and ZocDoc, I chose a primary care practice that was relatively close to home and that was covered under my insurance (I won’t name the practice here for obvious reasons, but I will say that it is part of a major New York City health system). I even made the appointment on ZocDoc, and the ease and convenience of the website actually motivated me to go, which was a good thing since I am awfully stubborn when it comes to making doctor’s appointments when I’m sick (rest and positive vibes are not always enough, apparently). So there I had it, a 3:30 p.m. appointment to get me cured.

I arrived at the office right at 3:30, and since I was a new patient, I was prompted to fill out loads of paperwork. As I was on page two of one thousand of my paper-filled clipboard, I noticed that the very doctor I made an appointment with on ZocDoc was heading out of his office with a bookbag on his back (I knew what he looked like from Google images). Now, this was strange. My visit with him was about to start any minute, yet he was leaving?

I then overheard him telling the staff member at the front desk that he “was done for the day with appointments” and that he “blocked off this time for no appointments” weeks ago. The doctor was clearly not happy when the woman at the front desk told him that he had a 3:30 patient and that ZocDoc had him open at that time. He made another hasty comment about not seeing any more patients that day and abruptly walked out of the office. I stopped filling out my paperwork, walked up to the desk, and asked the woman who was working there what the deal was. After all, you could imagine my frustration—I left work early to travel to the doctor’s office for an appointment I made that apparently never existed in the first place. Plus, my throat felt like it was on fire and my head was pounding, so no, it was not a great situation to be in.

The woman at the front desk wasn’t very helpful. She told me that they are trying to migrate away from using ZocDoc because they always make mistakes with appointments. I said that is unfortunate, but now that I am here, can I please see someone else? She reluctantly sent me downstairs (the office is two floors, with a separate staff on each one), told me to tell the other staff what happened, and assured me that I would be able to see another physician. Of course, I did exactly that, and the staff downstairs threw a fit, saying that no other doctor has any availability and that the upstairs staff “does nothing productive,” just passing their problem (me) onto someone else.

Needless to say, I was getting annoyed, and to be frank, it was becoming a very unsettling experience overall: you had a doctor who rushed right out of the office and rudely said he won’t see any more patients; a staff that was barking at each other with a packed waiting room listening and watching; and a technology system that apparently outright failed.

Now, I ended up seeing another doctor about 45 minutes later, and he was fantastic—caring, thoughtful, and informative—everything you could want in a physician. Five days later, I am back at it and 100 percent recovered thanks to his diagnosis and the medicine he prescribed me. But the bigger story here is the failure—and according to the practice’s staff, a repeated disappointment—with a technology system that is being used by this office to make simple appointments.

To be fair, I don’t truly know who is really at fault for this mishap—the practice, the doctor, or ZocDoc—but due to the scheduled physician’s reaction and the staff’s reaction when I told them I made the appointment online, I’d be willing to bet that ZocDoc was certainly partially at fault. And this speaks to the bigger question of doctors being able to effectively integrate technology into their practices. I couldn’t help but wonder while I was sitting in the waiting room, that if this physician practice, part of one of the best health systems in the country, can’t get virtual appointments right, how are they going to be able to interoperate with other EHR systems? Now maybe this is naïve of me. The doctor I saw was using the office’s Epic EHR, so clearly they weren’t too foreign to technology. Maybe this one situation was a blip on the radar, and was the exception rather than the rule, but still, it seemed a tad troubling.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer. In fact, I encourage everyone to read our Editor-in-Chief, Mark Hagland’s recent blog on why people should be optimistic about the future of health IT, referencing Dr. John Halamka’s post-HIMSS16 blog in which the CIO said, “I left HIMSS this year with great optimism.  Vendors, technologies, and incentives are aligned for positive change. 2016 will be a great year.” Hagland additionally noted the clarity, focus, and drive at this year’s HIMSS conference, envisioning an industry that seems to finally be on the path to alignment.