When the Physician Calls in Sick to Work

March 4, 2013

Medical practice staff absences hurt, but I'm not sure what I'd do if the other physician at my practice suddenly fell ill and couldn't work.

A few months ago, I got a call on a Sunday morning from my associate’s husband. She was in the hospital. The friend in me rushed to her side, held her hand and assured her everything was going to be okay. The friend in me said, "Don’t worry. We’ll work things out at the office." The boss in me started selfishly thinking, "What the heck am I going to do with all her patients?"

Well, I had a day to reschedule all her Monday patients. They were all called and rescheduled. Once we knew how long Dr. B was going to be out (and on her insistence that would be four weeks shorter than her doctor wanted), we moved her patients around. I saw who I could, and postponed those I couldn’t.

As big as a hassle as that was, this seemed to pale in comparison to being called at 6:30 a.m. on a more recent Monday by my nurse practitioner who had to call in sick that day. She had a full day of patients scheduled, as did I, as did Dr. B. Well, what could I tell her? I wasn’t going to make her come in. I said, "Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out." Of course, as soon as I hung up, I was not nearly as charitable with my thoughts. "%#*@@ that’s just what I need on a Monday" - a Monday when one of my staff members was going to be out, too.

So, I went to work a half-hour early to prep my charts. I told the staff to let patients know what was going on, to apologize in advance if we started falling behind, and to give anyone who didn’t want to wait the opportunity to reschedule. So Dr. B and I set about seeing our patients and divvying up our nurse practitioner's patients. It was a hectic day, and things were tense, but we survived. I wanted to send thank you notes to the no-shows, not that there were many.

Fortunately, a full day for our nurse practitioner is the equivalent of a half schedule for us because we budget more time for her to see patients, 30 minutes for a follow-up as opposed to our 15-minute slots. I don’t know what I would do if Dr. B had to call in sick emergently. It got me thinking: What do other practices do when a physician or another provider calls in sick? What does a solo practitioner do?

I know, most of us, unfortunately, trudge in with our fevers of 102 degrees, our broken ankles, and early hours of labor, but what if you really just can’t? What steps can your practice take to accommodate your patients?