physician heal thyself!

When I was in college, the hippie kingdom railed against the hated Military-Industrial Complex. The MIC, they felt sure, was more than happy to wage war in Vietnam and rake in beaucoups of money. Making bombs to make a buck. Oh the outrage. Well where are hippies when you need them?

Today we have another MIC wreaking havoc on us: the Medical-Insurance Complex. Step forward and volunteer to fight the good fight if you have had it with doctors, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies. Take up arms against this nefarious MIC if you are sick of spending untold hours and tons of money to get shoddy healthcare served by folks with bad attitudes.

The self-proclaimed geniuses working in healthcare today do such a great job of taking care of people, they should pat themselves on the back. Please, just turn your arms into windmills and pat yourself on the back ad nauseam. You’ve done such a damn fine job of providing care the federal government feels compelled to step in and help you out. So please, please use those windmilling arms to pat to yourself to death. You’ll make a lot of people happy.

Anti-healthcare sentiment is bubbling over today, a hot venomous broth directed at people who are perceived as arrogant, greedy, and inept. Greed example: Since when did a simple shot in the hip get coded as “surgery?”

I say it is time to bring back the days of the little black bag and accomplished doctors who aren’t over-reliant on tests, scans, blood work, X-rays, imaging, and myriad other ways to be sure they avoid a malpractice lawsuit—all at your expense.

What a mess healthcare has become. In an age when five-year-old kids adroitly navigate an iPad, way too many clinics hand you a clipboard, faded Xerox copies of archaic forms, and cheap ballpoint pens that skip more often than they write. That, folks, is cave man information gathering. For that and many other reasons as you’ll see, an encounter with way too many healthcare providers today is maddening. The sirens of greed and over-testing have seduced them into taking their patients for granted. You get the feeling that fear of malpractice suits take precedence over good service.

Too Much Technology & Too Much Pharmaceutical Money

I watched a documentary on commercial pilots recently. I immediately thought of today’s technology-reliant doctors. Aircraft technology, avionics in particular, pretty much flies airliners today—they even take off and land planes. Pilots merely monitor the never-ending stream of data and all is well. But let a major malfunction take out the sophisticated technologies and many pilots struggle to fly the craft, which is … their job! They’re rusty, out of practice according to an expert in the Discovery channel documentary. I see a parallel to today’s breed of doctors. They really don’t practice medicine so much as they monitor lab results and then order a prescription that generally fails to work. Don’t believe me? Allow me to present the ballyhooed Z-Pak. I had an honest doctor actually tell me that I’d probably get as much good from a pack of M&Ms as I would a Z-Pak. But when I get bronchitis or a bad sinus infection every doctor I see wants to prescribe a Z-Pak when it’s a known fact that upper respiratory viral infections don’t respond to antibiotics. So why prescribe it?

A friend offers an explanation. “They’ve got to return the favor to that pharmaceutical company that just sent the doc and wife on a continuing education junket to Maui.”

Healthcare today is enough to drive you insane. A visit to a healthcare provider today resurrects the mantra Howard Beale, longtime anchorman in the movie Network, bellowed to get viewers to raise their windows and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Are you mad as hell? You ought to be.

Let me state that good doctors are out there but they seem to be in the minority. That hasn’t always been the case. We baby boomers came along when many things in this country were much better and I for one believe doctors back then were superior to today’s doctors. They weren’t over-reliant on technology and tests and they could diagnose you with a simple examination. I doubt lawsuits worried them at all. We weren’t as litigious then as we are today. Moreover physicians of the 1950s and 1960s were revered as benevolent healing magicians. They went into medicine because of an altruistic spirit, not to own a house in the mountains, the beach, and a villa in Italy.

It Held Miracles
It Held Miracles

I came along when physicians would make house calls. I and many of the people quoted here grew up in rural Georgia under the care of an exceptional physician. I remember the small shiny black leather bag he carried. That bag held miracles. Every time I saw it I knew I’d soon be well. Dr. Weems Pennington St. was his name and he did not rely on tests and technology to diagnose your ills. He was a real doctor, not a test interpreter. As my friend Skip eloquently pointed out he was extremely talented. “We were indeed blessed to have Doc Pennington when we were growing up. He could stand across the room and more quickly and accurately diagnose a patient than most MDs today can do after $10,000 worth of lab tests and diagnostic procedures—and it cost about $25.”

And if you needed to see him, you just showed up at his clinic. Try that with a clinic today and see what it gets you.

Legal Claptrap Enters The Picture

“If this is a medical emergency, hang up and dial 911.” Does that sound familiar? I’m convinced that those eleven words, a bit of legal “strategizing,” take all the urgency out of clinic staffers’ desire to check voicemails. And it is among the many reasons healthcare and doctors are not worth a damn these days. Let me say that again for it bears repeating. Way too many healthcare providers are not worth a damn these days. When is the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a healthcare professional?

If this is a medical emergency, hang up and dial 911.”
If this is a doctor’s office or hospital, press “1”…
If you need refill authorization from the pharmacy, press “2”…
If you’d like to discuss test results, press “3”…
If you want to fire us, we dare you to do it in person.

I did and like Alka Selzter what a relief it was. I did it because I found it impossible to speak to a live human and because my clinic routinely took three to five days—not hours—to return my calls. The problem? I could not get an appointment when sick. This last time I had a fever of 101.8 and needed to see my doctor. To get an appointment with my now former doctor I had to navigate a voice-mail jail system designed to frustrate patients. Finally I was able to leave a message and as usual no one called back. I waited all morning and then went to urgent care. Again.

After I left urgent care I dropped by the clinic. I stood in line waiting my turn to speak as the staff scurried around like a Chinese fire drill team dressed in pajamas purloined from Shoney’s. I could see why no one bothered to check voicemails. They looked extremely disorganized. I finally got my turn at the window and I fired this time-wasting excuse of a clinic. “I’m never coming back,” I told the lady. She stammered, “I’m sorry.”

“You take on average three to five days to call me back when I ask for an appointment,” I calmly told her. “What am I supposed to do? Just wait? See another doctor? Go to urgent care? That doesn’t work for me.” Despite her apology she acted as if she had been through this scenario before.

I left and after picking up my prescription I posted a rant on Facebook. “Three times of never getting a call back got to be too much. Just fired my physician. Went there in person to give them the news. What an arrogant clinic they have become. What a waste of time they have become. What poor service they provide. And their attitude? Condescending with a bedside manner more aptly described as callous. They can’t even return a phone call these days. You should have seen the look in the eyes of the office manager. I can see why old Joe Stalin took care of his doctor problem. I’d use stronger language but this is not the place to really describe how bad these worthless sh*ts have become.”

And then my Facebook page exploded. I tapped into a ton of frustration and many, many people responded with their own bad healthcare experiences. It’s not just me; it’s many people who are fed up with shoddy care and toxic attitudes.

People Are Fed Up

Garry wrote, “ It is only going to get worse I am afraid.”

Don responded, “I’ve had similar issues with my longtime doctor. His staff seemed incredulous when I had the temerity to complain about their bad attitude and lack of attention (having to call four times to get test results, etc). Health care in this country is broken and failing.”

Just getting to talk to a healthcare professionals is a Herculean task. Wrote Becky, “It’s so hard to get a live human being on the phone but if you owe them one thin dime they’re on you like white on rice, and then you definitely get a live person.”

My friend, Robin, of Atlanta wrote, “Good luck in searching (for a new doctor) as there are more bad than good ones.”

Right here I need to state that I have friends who work in healthcare. I was shocked to learn that they agree with me. Several told me, anonymously, that they want to leave healthcare. “Trust me,” said one, “I can give you all the horror stories you want.” Truth is I don’t need their contributions. People aplenty shared their experiences. Said Paula, “Doctors are horrible these days. I loathe their attitudes, greed, and arrogance.”

Mac, a friend in North Carolina, wrote, “When I was a young boy my doctor made house calls. If you want to see one really badly today you have to make a house call to them at the Country Club!”

Anita, responding to my firing my clinic, said, “Good for you. I have had to do that once too. More people need to stand up and fire their doctor instead of just putting up with it.”

Kristine wrote, “My vet takes better care of my dogs than my doctor takes care of me. Seriously. At least the vet sends me a card when it’s time for their annual shots. I get no reminders about mammograms or other procedures I’m supposed to have annually. They don’t even ask when was your last mammogram. I have to bring it up!”

Carmen, not overlooking the disaster that insurance is today wrote, “Our insurance is sh*t but our doctor is great. But that is because we switched from the bigwig practice to the lower income clinic that has a better manager, I swear.”

Let me say too that this column shares the opinions of many people who have had bad experiences with doctors, clinics, and hospitals. I got good comments on healthcare but they were rare. All of the good posts however referred to “throwback” doctors who take their time with you, get to know you, and genuinely seem to care for you as a person.

Charles wrote, “I go to a Northeast Columbia family practice and am satisfied with the service and the doc is a good person. The billing and insurance company is a different story.”

Ben, down Lowcountry way, said, “I am pleased to say that I get excellent, attentive care from my doctor. His father was my doctor before him. He will take as much time as necessary to get to the bottom of a problem and recommend a treatment. He never looks at his watch and gives me as much time as required, so perhaps he will not be precisely on time for the next appointment.”

Now that’s a doctor! In fact, Ben’s physician sounds like a physician who carries a little black bag.

Your Time Doesn’t Matter

Next up. The long wait once you get an appointment. John is an attorney and he values his time, as we all do. He doesn’t like it when physicians overbook their calendar and force him to wait and wait and wait. It’s as if we are just little mobile ATMs who don’t have jobs. John bills physicians for his time when they make him wait. We all should.

Wanda wrote, “Why is it that when you have a 9:00 appointment, they ask you to show up 15 minutes early to update paperwork (cave man information gathering), then they don’t see you until 9:45? I have to respect the time of my clients. Why don’t medical people do the same?”

Of course you then wait another 45 minutes at least in a paper gown in a cold receiving room. And there’s this little fine print thing that if you fail to show up for an appointment they reserve the right to charge you anyway. Good try! Won’t work with me I assure you.

I watched in amazement as the posts kept coming in, each one shedding new light on the disaster we call healthcare. Reading all the posts a friend from Raleigh wrote, “It’s sad that we have to literally be our own advocates for our health. They no longer take the time to figure out and tell you what might be going on. Instead they ask us what we think! When I do have to see my doc I get maybe four minutes with him! (After waiting an hour mind you). I’d rather go to Urgent Care or the Minute clinic theses days!”

Said Kay, “When you finally get an appointment you sit forever (because they book so many people in the same time slot).

Marilyn, like me, fired a doctor. “Tom I just fired my daughter’s doctor last week. I can say I have never been treated so rudely as I was treated there, and I don’t have to put up with that kind of behavior by anyone.”

Doug wrote, “People are desperate to get insurance that qualifies them to go to these clowns. What a mess we are in. And you go to a doctor, all they say is take statins.”

The Quest For Alternative Care

“I am knocking on every piece of wood today and tomorrow that I don’t get sick for any reason.” Eva wrote that. “I wish you were the only one I keep hearing these stories from. I am with you Tom. I remember the ‘good old days’ and family doctors and people that did their jobs because they cared.”

Karen, a former student, shared her tale of woe. “A few years ago, I had a run-in with my doctor’s Office Manager Nazi. I needed an authorization to get a medicine, and he said they didn’t have time for all of that, and I’d have to make an appointment to get the paperwork done. I said, “Well, that’s why I’m here.”

He said, “Well, she can’t see you today. You’ve already used up all of your time with me.” Seriously! I broke down into tears! In November, I called for an appointment for my annual physical. They can’t get me in until February! Yep! Three months! I’ve been with this doctor for years! The last time I was in, the doctor was fed up with the new regulations put in place because of the Affordable Care Act and said that it was causing them to be able to see fewer patients because of the time load per patient to go through all of the hoops. This is why I’ve explored alternate treatments and have become very educated on the use of essential oils. I’ve built myself a supply of oils that I understand and know how to use and a support group of fellow oilers who are treating our health problems naturally using pure essential plant oils. The results have been amazing!!!

Becky wrote, “I haven’t been to a doctor in four years for that very reason (arrogance). Funny how healthy eating, herbs, raw vinegar, raw honey, organic cinnamon, can replace all those drugs they push.”

So, what did I learn? Many of us have an “I’ve had-it” attitude with “I’m-God-complex” doctors. I learned too of a lot of personal experiences documenting arrogance in the healthcare industry. I learned also that people are searching for alternative healthcare. Add it all up and throw in the major changes from the Affordable Care Act and you get an industry reeling from having to accept changes when they have always been all about control. It doesn’t make their attitude better, not at all.

Better Informed Patients

Skip, again. “I went to a Doc-In-A-Box awhile back with a bad cough bordering on what I thought may be pneumonia. The doctor prescribed exactly what I knew she would, antibiotics and steroids. I said I would take the antibiotics but was reluctant to take steroids and asked if there were other alternatives. Because I dared question her prescribed treatment, she said, “Then maybe you should just go to the emergency room,” turned on her heels and stomped out the exam room. In the end I took no medications and recovered quite nicely in a few days on my own.

Skip, who refused to pay for the visit continues, “I think one factor is that the Internet now gives patients access to information that allows them to make more informed decisions and take a more active role in evaluating and deciding upon their course of treatment. Some docs, who have long been accustomed to unquestioning obedience from their patients, find this a little difficult to handle.

“Another issue is the drumbeat of revelations that supposedly ‘unbiased’ studies, meant to demonstrate the efficacy of certain medications, are actually being sponsored by the manufacturer and/or being conducted by researchers who have a vested financial interest in the success of the medication. This is an issue that is gaining so much attention that even the AMA, which normally has its head firmly embedded in the sand, has begun to recognize its negative impact on the credibility of the profession and which must be addressed.”

I’ll Call The Police

Mac shared a humorous experience that drove home the point that some doctors don’t want you to see them or question their decisions.

“My best friend hurt his back and went to a medical center for relief. The nurses wouldn’t let him see the doctor, but the doctor prescribed him some medication for his back pains. The medication made him sick on his stomach. He goes back the next day and insists on seeing the doctor this time, but the nurses still were not going to let him see the doctor. He said he wasn’t leaving until he talked to the doctor. Well, they let him into the doctor and he explains to the doctor the medication did ease the pain in his back, but it made him sick on his stomach. He asked the doctor if he could prescribe something less harsh on his stomach but still take care of the pain in his back.

“The doctor looks at him and says, ‘I guess you think you’re a doctor!’ My friend says, ‘No I’m not a doctor and I’m not a veterinarian either, but I recognize a horse’s ass when I see one.’ The doctor says, ‘You don’t talk to me that way. I’ll call the police.’ My friend says, ‘Go ahead, what makes you think I can’t whip your ass before the police get here?’ The doctor prescribed him something that did the job, but my friend has never been back. God does not wear a white smock!”

Confusing Billing Practices

Then there are the confusing coding and billing practices. Every time I go to a clinic I keep getting bills for months and months from that one visit. Sometimes the bills take a year to come in. Suppose a restaurant adopted that model. You’d get an invoice from the hostess, the cook, the waiter, the fellow who brewed your tea, the various providers of the salad, the soup, and the main entrée—all at different times. Oh and let’s not forget the guy who bussed your table. An oversimplification I know but you get the gist of what I’m saying.

And trying to make sense of your bills is futile. How hard would it be to insert into the mumbo-jumbo codes (Sinus Infection) or (Sore Throat and Fever)? Some bills are so similar you can’t tell them from other bills. So, so easy to pay the same bill twice, and you just know the providers hate that!

When my dad was dying for two years from cancer he had so many providers and surgeries it was a nightmare. My sister kept all his invoices and EOBs in a huge ring-binder notebook. Dad was billed an extra $8,000 for fees already paid. My sister’s good work got the money refunded. Now just imagine how much money is being made due to invoice confusion every day.

The same day I fired the inept clinic I got a refund from an area hospital for overpaying a bill. It took six years to the day to return my money to me. Six years! Damn what an abomination. Who else but an entity in healthcare can get away with that!

Few People Remember These Days
Few People Remember These Days

Greed Pure And Simple

How I’d love to see a doctor who is comfortable with his status in life make a house call while carrying a little black bag. How I’d love to see a kind and wonderful doctor like Weems Pennington Sr. be cloned and spread all across the USA.

Used to be that people got into medicine because of a burning desire to help people. Now they get into medicine because of unchecked avarice. I know a fellow who used to sell dental supplies. He called on a dentist who had made $2 million the year before. The dentist told him he was upping his fee schedule. “Why,” asked my friend.

“To see if I can make $6 million.”

I don’t give a damn about all the talk swirling around Obamacare as some call it. I don’t know what will make healthcare well again. I don’t think all the governments in the world can make it well again. Doctors act like they really don’t want to see you. Support staff act like they’re royalty. Insurance companies keep raising rates and fighting tooth and nail to pay as few fees as possible. Meanwhile pharmaceutical companies’ greed knows no bounds and apparently neither do physicians. Last February I had to have an IV of saline solution. Water and plastic! Cost me $1,359. If you ask me greed pure and simple is the enemy.

I stand with Skip who wrote, “My prescription (for healthcare) is more $80K/year nurse practitioners and paramedicals who can effectively diagnose and treat 80 percent of presented cases, and damn fewer $500K/year specialists.”

Amen brother. And one more thing if you are a healthcare provider reading my column and you are pissed, well do something to improve your profession. And another thing. I don’t care if a doctor reads this and refuses to see me because I’ve hurt his little feelings because he is precisely the fellow I’m trying to avoid. Somewhere out there (I suspect it’s in small towns) there’s a kind, caring physician who honors the Hippocratic Oath.

As for the rest of you charlatans I have but three words.

“Physician, heal thyself.”


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].