What's Wrong With the Medical and Legal Professions

Last Updated Jan 31, 2011 6:32 PM EST

Whats Wrong With the Medical and Legal ProfessionsThe original noble professions were doctor, lawyer, and clergy. They were called that because they dedicated or "professed" their lives to service. That's right, service.

When I was a kid we held these professionals in high esteem.

Doctors actually used to care about their patients. They even made house calls. Lawyers weren't all about suing people. And televangelists and child-abusing priests hadn't yet destroyed our faith in the clergy.

Since then, something's gone terribly wrong.

Today, things are very different, to say the least. The business world has kept pace with intense global competition and the complexity of mass product proliferation by drastically improving customer service, communications, and information.

But doctors and lawyers haven't gotten the message.

These days, consumers lead busy, complex lives. We have little time to screw around with archaic annoyances like phone tag and little patience for arrogant professionals that act as if they're special but fail to deliver on that promise.

The medical and legal professions are completely out of sync with modern society.

Some recent examples:

On the most popular radio station on the west coast, a recurring advertisement for a prominent local law firm has this to say about the lead attorney, "He returns phone calls." These days, that's a huge testimonial to a lawyer's professionalism. Really.

As for my own attorneys - and these days you do need several - while they're good at what they do and I like them personally, they are surprisingly unresponsive, not to mention the attitude when they do respond.

Don't get me wrong. I have tremendous respect and empathy for their busy schedules.

But you know, when I was a corporate executive, I was deluged with emails and phone calls, was double booked in meetings, spent a big chunk of my life on the road, and I still managed to respond to customers, vendors, the media, whoever, in a timely manner. And I wasn't rude when I did respond.

As for doctors, it's even worse. Much worse. Let me share a personal anecdote to highlight my point. Here's a recent email exchange (yes, this is a high-tech medical group in Silicon Valley, so they actually have email) with my internist of 10 years:

Me: Hi Dr. [Smith], hope you're well. Yesterday when I attempted to renew my [Drug XXX] scrip, [the pharmacy] said [my insurance company] required special authorization. They do that every so often. Would you please take care of that for me?

Dr. Smith: [Drug XXX] will not be covered since [Drug YYY] therapeutically equivalent. Appeal will be denied in my extensive experience on this issue.

Me: Went thru this same thing twice already and it was approved in both cases. Are you saying you won't try?

Dr. Smith: I am loath to spend time on futile things given many demands on my time and this work down between appt's. Will submit.

Of course, it was approved, no problem. And get this. This was a drug he prescribed. And he was the one who suggested I join this email system - at a nominal annual cost, of course - which I've used all of twice in I don't know how many years. I hardly see this guy. So what's with the attitude? Just having a bad day?

Let me ask you this: if you're having a bad day, can you get away with taking it out on your customers? I didn't think so. Me neither.

Yeah, I know it's a headache for doctors to have to deal with insurance companies and all that. I feel for them. But it's not as if business professionals, managers, and corporate executives don't have their fair share of irritants and issues that keep them up at night.

And while these are indeed specific anecdotes that don't necessarily represent the state of these professions in America, it's clear to me that, if medical and legal professionals want to stay noble, they need to get with the program. And that means a major overhaul in three areas:

  1. Customer service attitude. How about a little "how can I help you" and "thanks for your business" from time to time?
  2. Real-time communication. Availability and responsiveness.
  3. Availability of information to base decisions on. Hospital track records on surgery, deaths, and infections, for example.
That said, I don't know what it's going to take for them to change. But if they want to remain noble professions, they're better off going back to their roots and remembering that service is what it's all about.

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Image courtesy Flickr user Ollie Crafoord