Dr. Udell is also a firm believer in informing patients of an upcoming absence. “I think the patient will be more understanding if it comes from the doctor,” he says. “The patient can then discuss options if necessary, such as skipping an appointment, seeing another partner or returning only for emergencies. Many of our patients are long term, and would be truly concerned about the physician’s welfare if they weren’t informed.”
How Much to Divulge
Dr. Meara’s patients figured out that she was pregnant by observing her large belly and, therefore, they knew she would be taking leave at some point. “I told them my estimated return date if they asked,” she says. For an unexpected leave, she suggests having office staff tell patients that an employee is unavailable. They can also ask the individual in question what information they prefer be shared with patients.
If you decide to tell patients about your upcoming absence, how much should you tell them? Dr. Meara recommends providing basic information, such as the timeframe you’ll be away. If there are sensitive issues, you might simply want to say that you will unavailable for an unspecified amount of time.
For all other causes, Dr. Meara suggests providing as much information as you are comfortable with. “If you want to tell your patients your mother is sick and you need to care for her, then do so,” she says. “That is between the provider and the patient. Although there are minimal data about this, some articles note that telling patients personal details can build trust and helps smooth a transition.”
Because Dr. Myers’ reason for absence was pregnancy, as she became more visibly pregnant, the topic opened up discussions. “If the reason for an absence is a more personal one, such as surgery or cancer treatment, it would be more appropriate for the practitioner to divulge a leave of absence to the patient with an expected date of return,” she says. “This could be addressed in a mailing or by staff outside the context of an office visit if the practitioner must leave suddenly or if the practitioner is uncomfortable addressing a patient’s questions.”
Accessible While on Leave
Remaining available for consult while away is a personal decision. Dr. Meara was available via email and returned emails while on maternity leave, which she felt was possible because there weren’t any complications with her deliveries. However, she does not feel that anyone should be forced to be accessible. “If it helps smooth the transition, the employee taking leave should set concrete expectations” (e.g., they plan to check emails every Friday), she says.