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Shortcut Solutions to Health-Care Problems

Take the headache out of dealing with doctors and insurance companies. These time-saving strategies will get you on the fast track.

By Nancy Kalish
Illustration of a man in a long line waiting for a doctor Kiuchi Tatsuro

The Problem: You Can’t Afford to Waste Hours in the Waiting Room

Time-Saving Solutions: 

  • See an open-access doctor. Some physicians have started offering their patients same-day appointments instead of scheduling weeks or months in advance. This discourages double booking and unclogs wait time, says Davis Liu, the author of Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely: Making Intelligent Choices in America’s Healthcare System (Stetho Publishing, $25, and a physician in Sacramento, California, who uses this system in his practice.
  • Fill out forms beforehand. Ask the office to fax or e-mail any forms a few days before your visit. Bring them with you to the appointment, completed.
  • Avoid the busiest times. Nab the first appointment of the day. “We tend to start on schedule,” says James King, M.D., board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians, “but get behind because it’s impossible to predict how much time each patient will need.” Another good option? The first appointment after lunch. Days to avoid: Mondays, Fridays, and the days before and after holidays.
  • Call ahead. Most receptionists are happy to tell you if the doctor is on time and, if not, how much later you should arrive. And if you do get stuck in a packed waiting room, it’s OK to ask if you have time to run an errand without losing your place.

The Problem: You Have a Question for Your Doctor but Don’t Have an Appointment

Time-Saving Solutions:  

  • Speak to your doctor’s nurse or the physician’s assistant. You’re more likely to get one on the phone quickly. He or she may be able to answer a routine question for you or relay it to the doctor and call back with a response. Be sure to give instructions that it’s OK to leave a message on your voice mail or with a person answering your phone, advises Liu. Privacy laws prevent doctors’ offices from leaving messages with others unless authorized.
  • Ask if you can e-mail. Some doctors like to correspond with patients via computer, while others prefer not to, out of concerns for patient privacy or fears that an emergency will be missed. The receptionist can tell you if this is a good way to contact your doctor and, if so, approximately how long it will take for her to get back to you.

The Problem: Staying on Top of Insurance-Claim Forms Is Exhausting

Time-Saving Solutions:  

  • Create a master sheet for each family member. Fill in a blank form with all the basic information (name, address, birth date) and make several copies. Then, when you need to file a claim, just sign and date a copy and attach the doctor’s portion. Many insurance companies will even allow you to submit claims by fax, so you don’t have to search for an envelope or find time to go to the post office.
  • Be sure your claim is complete. Missing details can cause the insurance company to bounce a form back to you. Check that your doctor’s statement includes his tax-identification number. “When a physician leaves this off, it may slow processing of the claim,” says Mary McElrath-Jones, a spokesperson for United Healthcare. And make sure the billed amount is itemized if there were multiple charges.
  • Enlist tracking software. Often, even after careful reading, your insurance company’s explanation-of-benefits letter may not explain much at all. A product that helps: Quicken Medical Expense Manager ($50 for Windows only, With a little information from you, it will check your reimbursements, deductibles, and flexible-spending account. And if you’ve been shorted, it will create a customized dispute letter for the insurance company.
Read More About:Preventative Health

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