Article Date: 5/1/2001

Lesson in Harmony
The need for balance between a doctor and his staff becomes clear.

If you've ever wondered about the impact your office staff has on your patients, or the power of your words on your patients' well-being, my recent encounter with a neurosurgeon and his staff might hold a lesson or two worth remembering.

Cool reception

Anxious from nine days of discomfort, I visited my neurosurgeon's practice, called the Brains, Back and Beyond Group (a fictitious name). Two staffers sat behind the front desk; two television sets were barely audible; 12 patients waited in a reception area that could accommodate 40.

I was there because a little while ago, I'd noticed tingling in my right lower forearm, along with an ache in my scapula and neck. The physician assistant I normally see diagnosed it as stress, but a few weeks later I awoke with severe lower back pain.

The pain worsened when I reached forward, for example to use the phoropter or a tonometer behind a slit lamp. My physician assistant ordered MRIs of the lumbar and cervical vertebrae and at my request referred me to a neurosurgeon.

Now, as I wait, one of the staffers is helping a patient who arrived ahead of me. The other is doing something so important she's unable to acknowledge me standing there. Eventually, she looks up.

"I'm Peter Dodge," I say. "I'm here for a 2:45 appointment with Dr. Cutler [not his real name]."

"Are you still at 5443 Autumn Drive?"


"Is your phone number still . . . ."

"Excuse me," I interrupt. "I called your office yesterday morning and gave all this information. Nothing's changed since then." The office had called me at 7:30 p.m. two days ago and left a message to call back with the usual information.

The staff member behind the front desk finishes asking a few more questions, all of which I had answered the day before.

Then she asks me to fill out the medical history form. I dutifully fill in the blanks, remembering how the office refused to fax the form to me in advance so I wouldn't be bothered with it at the appointment.

Change for the better

After a few minutes, I'm ushered to a treatment room and Dr. Cutler soon walks in. We review my history. He asks questions to clarify points. He performs his exam, explains what he's doing and comments on my responses.

Then he takes out my cervical films and shows me what they reveal in terms I can understand. The small ruptured disc between C2 and C3 isn't worrisome, and he wouldn't consider surgery unless the problem returned and worsened.

In the lumbar spine, a small part of the disc between L2 and L3, or possibly L3 and L4, ruptured. For the time being, he recommends waiting.

I'm viscerally and visibly relieved; in fact, I'm just about in tears.

My problems are manageable, and I don't have to make any immediate decisions.

What a contrast

Dr. Cutler's personal approach to my visit was in contrast to his office staff's behavior. He spent 40 minutes with me and never gave a hint of worrying about his next appointment. His staff, on the other hand, didn't acknowledge me immediately when I arrived. They asked me to repeat information they already had and wouldn't fax me the medical history form in advance.

On the other hand, Dr. Cutler reinforced the power that we as healthcare practitioners have to address a patient's concerns. Taking a little extra time and explaining options clearly to your patient can go a long way to providing top-notch care. 

(If you'd like to e-mail Dr. Dodge, he can be reached at

DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? Contact Larisa Hubbs at (215) 643-8141 or, so we can talk about getting your story published.

Optometric Management, Issue: May 2001