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Sick? Doctor's busy? Here's help

  • Story Highlights
  • Report: Only 30 percent of patients in need were able to get same-day appointment
  • Persistence pays off: Call first thing in morning; talk to manager; e-mail doctor
  • Last resort: Just go to the doctor's office and hope for the best
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By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Barb Lighthall was walking into church when her feet slipped out from under her and she hit her head on the parking lot's black ice.

Barb Lighthall had to wait a week to see her regular doctor after a head injury sent her to the ER.

"You know how most people break their fall with their hands? I broke my fall with my head," says Lighthall.

An ambulance took her to the emergency room, where she was prescribed pain pills, discharged, and told to check in with her regular doctor in the next three days.

But that would prove impossible. When Lighthall called her internist the next day, the appointment secretary said the doctor wouldn't be able to see her for another week.

"I told them I'd take a cancellation, I'd do anything, but they said she was all booked up," says Lighthall, who lives in Munnsville, New York. "So I spent the week of Thanksgiving dizzy. When I walked from my bed to the bathroom, I hit every piece of furniture and every wall in between."

When Lighthall did finally get in to see her physician the next week, she was prescribed medicine to treat the dizziness, and felt much better.

"It would have made my Thanksgiving week a whole lot better if I'd gotten in to see her earlier," she says.

"I really screwed up. I should have pushed for an earlier appointment," she adds. "I'd advise anyone who needs an appointment quickly to never give up."

According to a 2007 Commonwealth Fund report, only 30 percent of patients who needed care were able to get a same-day appointment. So here are some insider tips from doctors about how to get an appointment when you really need one. Video Watch for more tips on how to get in to see your doctor »

1. Find your doctor's e-mail address

This will require some Internet sleuthing, but it could be worth it.

"This is a true story," says Dr. Indu Subaiya, co-founder of a health care forum called Health 2.0.

"A friend of mine needed to get his wife into a doctor at UCSF for back pain. All the secretaries told them it would be weeks for an appointment. They found the e-mail address of one doctor who seemed like a good fit and just wrote him a personal note explaining the urgency. He responded at 11 p.m., and she was in to see him the first thing in the morning the next day."

2. Give TMI (too much information)

Be specific about what's wrong. For example, Dr. Paul Konowitz, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon in Quincy, Massachusetts, says his receptionist might not make time in his schedule to see someone with a sore throat. "But if he said he had a sore throat and it felt like his throat was closing, this might indicate a more serious issue,"

Your goal is to get the person on the other end of the phone to feel sorry for you, Konowitz advises on HealthAngle, a health information Web site where he's the medical director.

"Let them feel your pain; you want them to have sympathy for you and your sense of urgency."

3. Ask to speak to the manager

The person answering the phone is often the lowest person on the totem pole. Ask to speak to the office manager or the nurse in charge, who might have the authority to squeeze you in. Leave a voice mail if you don't get a real person.

"Be polite but persistent," says Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

4. Call first thing in the morning

Place your call the minute the office opens, and you'll greatly improve your chances of getting an appointment.

"Doctors will often have a few slots saved throughout the day for same day appointments. They fill up fast, so call ASAP in the morning," advises Dr. Delia Chiaramonte, an internist in Maryland. "Don't wait to see if you feel better. You can always cancel it."

5. Go a little crazy

Another true story: One of Konowitz's patients, who was worried she had throat cancer, actually called a local TV station to complain when she couldn't get in to see him on short notice. Someone at the station called the public relations folks at the hospital where he works, who called him.

"I was really embarrassed -- and shocked! I saw the patient immediately," Konowitz says, adding that the receptionist had never told him, or his nurses, about this patient's desperation. "Physicians can't really know who is out there looking to be seen, which is why the patients often have to take matters into their own hands."

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When all else fails, Konowitz advises that you just go to the doctor's office and plunk yourself in the waiting room.

"You may find a sympathetic receptionist, medical assistant or nurse who will discuss your situation with your doctor, who then might agree to see you," he says.

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