There was a time, decades ago, when doctors did house calls. Physicians were part of a patient's extended family, available at any hour of the day or night. But even in this connected world of cellphones, pagers and e-mail, there are only a few doctors who hold on to old-school traditions, such as giving out their personal phone numbers to patients.
One such doctor is Alan DeCherney, a reproductive endocrinologist with a busy practice at UCLA. DeCherney, who's been in medicine for 30 years, provides his home phone and cellphone number to every patient.
Although many of his colleagues would be surprised -- perhaps even aghast -- at the notion, DeCherney says "people have never abused it."
"It only takes a minute or two to take a phone call," says the 62-year-old professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Medical Center.
On a recent Sunday morning, Lara Shriftman, a public relations executive, was highly concerned about a health issue and called DeCherney on his cellphone. "He was working and told me to come right over" to his office, she says. It turned out not to be a serious medical issue, but DeCherney "was happy to put my mind at ease."
DeCherney doesn't consider seeing a patient on the weekend or giving out his phone number a big deal. Rather, it was a choice he made the day he entered the profession. He grew up in the 1950s watching his father treat people at the family's Philadelphia home, where patients "called him all the time."
"Society has changed as far as what doctors do," he says.
But clearly, DeCherney's way of practicing medicine is becoming increasingly rare.
"I know that used to be the way things were back in the day," says Dr. Jill Satorie, a chief resident in the obstetrics and gynecology department at UCLA. Satorie already puts in grueling hours -- sometimes working as much as 80 hours a week -- and can't imagine giving patients around-the-clock access.
"You'd hate to be at dinner with a friend and you're getting 10 calls," she says, noting that many doctors, especially younger ones, encourage patients to e-mail them with questions and health concerns.
Gaining control over their personal time is one reason why doctor's become part of a group practice.
"I think now doctors are joining groups where you share calls so you're not delivering babies every night," says Satorie. "We're just not allowing patients to have just one doctor."
Dr. Shahin Ghadir, a reproductive medicine fellow at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, understands her concerns. "I've given out my cellphone number, but only to patients I've built a relationship with," he says. "If I don't know someone, whether it's a patient I've seen once or someone I've seen at the supermarket, I don't want to give out my private information."
Understandably, many doctors worry that a few patients will abuse the privilege. "There might be the patient who calls you every day and is obsessing about something," Satorie says. "Sometimes people can have interesting expectations."
Expectations that no doctor can meet. It's understandable that a doctor would worry about the hypochondriacal patient who is constantly calling. Or the person who doesn't think the doctor has a life outside the office. At least with an answering service, pager or e-mail, there's a buffer of sorts.
But for physicians such as Dr. Charles Schneider, e-mail isn't his style or from his generation. The Century City ear, nose and throat specialist doesn't hesitate to give out his home phone number. At a time when most doctors have unpublished numbers -- his is listed in the phone book.
"I don't like the idea that someone has a problem and they can't reach me," he says. "It's my patient, and I know their history. I've never had a problem with it."