Medical Self-Service

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatMost of today’s younger drivers have never experienced pulling into a gas station and having an attendant run out to fill up their car with gas. When it comes to fueling their vehicles, all they know is self-service. I have a vague recollection of that time. When the concept of self-service gas stations surfaced, the naysayers scoffed, saying no one would willingly refuel their own car. However, offering a price break proved the self-serve skeptics wrong.

Years later when the Internet boom occurred, the idea of self-service resurfaced. The basic business model was a scalable system, accessible through cyberspace, which offered customer service via self-service, without any call center support. In most cases, that vision didn’t work. Plus, the Internet bubble soon burst.

Few people wanted self-serve customer service, but when the alternatives were minimal phone support, automated phone support, or no phone support at all, they took the only other option – online self-service. Even so, this planted the seed of self-serve customer service. And it grew, slowly at first, but steadily over time, sometimes awkwardly, and other times with glimmers of promise. A decade later and it has proliferated, in a few cases becoming all that was expected.

Sadly, this retrained me to consider the phone second. When faced with a question about an organization, my first impulse is to go online, seeking instant gratification via the World Wide Web. However, aside from basic information, such as about sports, movies, or books, specific information and detailed answers are often hard to find.

For example, in the area of software support, the large vendors offer little useful help. But there are online forums and communities willing to assist. If I google my error message, sometimes the solution pops up on the first click; other times, all I find is others stymied by the same problem – and no one knows the solution.

When seeking specific, detailed information, more times than not, I’m disappointed. First, the answers are seldom instant. Second, either I can’t find what I seek, or what I do find fails to clarify – or even worse, confuses. Only sometimes do my self-serve customer service efforts for important issues produce a result that is both quick and satisfying.

On the medical front, there’s a vast amount of information available online. From my non-medical perspective, some is outstanding, some superficial, and some wrong – just like every other online topic. However, in my experience, quality medical information abounds from many credible sites. Recently, I went online for a self-diagnosis. As I viewed multiple sites that I deemed reputable, my findings confirmed my general suspicion and converged on a specific conclusion.

Armed with this information, I called the next day to make an appointment (why do ailments always seem worse at night?). Even though I carefully worded my reason as “I think…” rather than “I have…,” the receptionist was dubious. However, my pain description gained me a quick appointment.

I’m sure many patients have tried self-diagnosis and been unsuccessful – perhaps humorously so – however, in my instance the results were correct, as confirmed by a nurse practitioner the next day and the specialist later that week. If I didn’t have access to an online resource when my need was greatest, instead waiting until the next day to call, I might have put things off since the urgency had passed.

Even better would have been a nurse triage line I could have called, received a preliminary diagnosis over the phone, and scheduled an appointment on the same call. As we all know, these options exist. However, finding one is challenging. I googled “telephone triage” for my city. The only matches were organizations looking to hire nurses for triage jobs – not triage centers to call.

Disappointment is often the case when you go online.

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From the June/July 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]