A friend of mine recently fell and sustained a complex wrist fracture. She is more than a month post injury, and her forearm, with all its external hardware, looks like an 11-year-old’s science project gone horribly wrong. As she related the story of her fall, the surgery, and her recovery, she mentioned that, since the surgery, she has had four follow-up visits, none of them with the same provider.
Two visits were with nurse practitioners and two with physicians’ assistants. Each of the folks that she saw was pleasant and courteous and appeared genuinely concerned about how she was doing. From a purely economic standpoint, I can understand why a surgeon feels he can be more productive in the operating room than when he is doing follow-ups in the office. Personally, I would have preferred to have at least a quick look at my handiwork. What I found most troubling, however, was the fact that my friend’s injury hadn’t received even the smallest dose of continuity during her recovery.
You could argue that sometimes a patient’s busy schedule makes it difficult for even the cleverest receptionist to make follow-up appointments with the same provider. However, my friend and her husband are reaping the benefits of being retired and can pretty much be any place at any time they want. Clearly this orthopedic office has put continuity at the bottom of the priority list.
Does not seeing the same provider at each visit make a difference? In my friend’s case it may have been important because it wasn’t until the last visit that she discovered that she was supposed to be wiggling her fingers. Continuity may not have prevented this oversight, but the discontinuity didn’t help.
People feel more comfortable in situations in which they see a familiar face, whether it’s a bank teller, a barber, or the person at the check-out counter in the grocery store. This calming effect of familiarity can be even more important when it comes to transmitting bad news or supporting a patient through a challenging illness.
If you find that argument for continuity a little too touchy-feely, consider it instead as an effective efficiency booster. Does it take you longer to see one of your colleague’s patients whom you may not have seen before or a 5-year-old patient you have seen several times a year since she was born? The time-saving advantage of continuity increases exponentially with the complexity of the patient’s presenting problem.
When you are seeing patients with whom you aren’t familiar, there are always those extra minutes with your eyes on the computer screen trying to get some sense of context. There are those time-gobbling ventures down therapeutic paths that are going to blind ends, simply because the patient doesn’t know you well enough to trust your advice.
These are just some of the reasons that make continuity important and why it should be one of the driving principles behind scheduling in every physician’s office. Where does continuity sit on the priority list in the practice where you work? Do providers leave enough time in their schedules to allow for same day visits and follow-ups? Are the providers flexible enough to allow their patients to see them for almost every visit?
You may agree with me on the importance of continuity, but you may also be struggling with that quality of life/professional responsibility thing. If, like an increasing number of pediatricians, you would like to work part time, but you realize that cutting back your hours also will mean that maintaining continuity with your patients will be more difficult, careful use of a mid-level provider might help soften the transition. Would 2 full days and 2 half-days a week be more continuity-friendly than 3 full days? You’d be working the same number of hours, but the first option may create the illusion that your familiar face is in the office more often than it is. Regardless of where your practice trajectory is going, don’t discount the value of continuity.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at email@example.com .