Family meetings are never easy.

They’re difficult, and often held to discuss the case of a demented patient. In these situations, the family doesn’t want the patient to hear their concerns or is afraid they’ll be embarrassed or angry. Sometimes getting the patient to the appointment is simply too difficult.

Of course, most discussions of this type can be done by phone … in theory. In practice, it doesn’t work that way.

It’s the subject matter that makes the impersonal nature of the phone difficult. Families have hard questions and want real answers at these times. A face-to-face meeting, with the human interaction, is often the best way to get things across clearly and still with compassion. It avoids the problem of the phone being passed around, having to repeat yourself to each person, and wondering who just asked what. Very few families, in my experience, want to do this on the phone.

These meetings are never quick, either. Depending on family and circumstances, they can take 30-60 minutes. Getting an insurance company to pay for that time is near impossible. Most plans only want to pay for visits where the patient is actually present, when in these cases the family is trying to avoid that. While there is a Medicare payment code for “advance care planning,” it doesn’t cover treatment discussions or other neurological issues they may bring up, and many patients are on non-Medicare plans.

I bill people for these times and have found that most families are willing to pay. I’m not fond of doing so, and certainly not trying to get rich off of them. But it’s still time that I’m in my office and have to pay my rent, staff, and utilities.

Part of this job – a big part – is helping patients and their loved ones understand and deal with difficult situations. Realistically, this is the best way to do it. Families understand that as well as I do.

Why won’t insurance companies cover them? I suppose their excuse is that they cover the patient, not the questions or emotional needs of their caregivers. Of course, those things are as important to the care of the patient as any treatment, but the bean counters don’t want to pay for them.

That is unfortunate, because someone has to. Good medical care depends on good communication with all involved.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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