Don’t call a patient when they can’t call you back.

Don’t text a patient if they can’t text you back.

Don’t email a patient from an email that doesn’t allow replies.

Don’t ever ever ever send a portal message that doesn’t allow replies.

I’m putting on my patient hat today, in the spirit of helping us all do better. These are all real things I’ve experienced as a patient…some many times. And, while I’m being a bit crass in my “don’t do this and don’t do that,” please know it is in the spirit of improvement. Sometimes, we don’t know we are missing the mark until a kind soul hopefully kindly tells us.

If you’ve done one or four of the things above, fine. Don’t beat yourself up, but do recognize it’s not good service. Starting tomorrow, let’s do better. Let’s not make the same mistake again. Now that we know it sucks to treat patients this way, we won’t.

First, can we all agree that we communicate with patients to have meaningful dialogue with them? We don’t call a patient to be able to log in the EMR that we left a message for Mrs. Smith that we need to get an updated insurance card or reschedule an appointment or talk to her about lab results. The call is to have a meaningful conversation with Mrs. Smith. The goal is not to CYA and document a message left. We should absolutely document the message left, but that’s not our goal. Our call is to have meaningful dialogue.

Second, can we agree that patients are important customers that we want to be kind to and remove barriers from being a happy customer of our practice? Awesome, now let’s dive into how to make these communications better, especially the outbound ones.

Phone calls

Have you ever gotten a phone call from a doctor’s office at 5:04 pm (or 4:31 pm if I’m being honest) with a message to call them back, but when you call back seconds later you get the answering service? And, the answering service doesn’t even take messages? And, it’s about test results that you are worried about, your appointment at 8 am tomorrow, or they are returning your call from a message you left that morning about a sick child? I have.

I also understand that physician offices are so busy that sometimes the hard-working staff doesn’t get to return a phone call until after hours. But, don’t leave a message knowing that the patient can’t call you right back.

What are the potential solutions? Leave your direct line or extension so they can bypass the phone tree/answering service. Tell them you’ll be there for X more minutes and explain that the phones are turned over, but to shoot you an email (or portal message) and you’ll call them right away. Then, watch your email and make good on it. Tell them to leave a message with the answering service and then you’ll call them back. And, give the answering service a heads up so you get the message right away. Or, check their permissions on the privacy form and if allowable, leave them the information on the message. Remember that the goal is to actually communicate, not just be able to say you returned the patient’s call.

Text message

Want to see me get hot? Text me to tell me that you need to change my appointment and for me to call the office. Then, don’t answer the phone when I call immediately. Or, text me after hours to tell me I need to reschedule by calling the office (which of course isn’t open). Or, text me at all from a number that doesn’t accept replies.

Let’s be clear here. Physician offices are using texting because it’s easy for them. It’s easy for patients too…but it’s a lot less time-intensive for them as well. So, don’t text me because it’s convenient for you to tell me to call you, which is inconvenient for me.

Use a texting service that allows responses. There are plenty of HIPAA compliant ones out there. Allow patients to respond. Have a dialogue with them…just like a message on your portal. If you can’t engage in a meaningful conversation with a patient via text message, don’t text them.


Just like text, don’t send a patient an email from an address that doesn’t allow replies. Allow meaningful dialogue to occur in a manner that is convenient for the patient. Email is a great way to do this. And, set up your EMR to save these communications in the patient record.

Nothing is more annoying than to get an email from a doctor’s office asking to log in to the portal for something…then log…and it was an appointment reminder or a flu shot reminder. Really? Just email the appointment reminder. Just email the flu shot reminder with a link to schedule.


Speaking of patient portals, they are a great way to communicate but be thoughtful about it. A portal is a great way to share secure information like documents and results, as well as a place to house upcoming appointments and medical records. It should be a resource for the patient. When sending outbound communications from the portal, put thought into whether or not they should have to log in to see them. And, only send it from an address that can receive replies. Again, drives me nuts to get a portal message from an address that I can’t reply to via the portal. Think of the portal as a conduit for two-way communication, not just something to push out information.

Starting to see a theme? Meaningful, two-way communication that is patient-friendly. Pause when sending out communications and think about how you would want to receive the information and be able to respond to it.

About the Author

Amanda Brummitt, FACHE is a customer service snob. She expects to be treated like a paying customer anywhere that she is a paying customer…including the doctor’s office. And, she believes it takes the same amount of effort to be kind to patients as it does to not be kind. She loves encountering customer-friendly physician offices (and will gladly tell you about them) and training healthcare providers and staff for improved patient experience.