Saturday, February 07, 2009

February 7, 2009 - Dumbth

Yesterday I slit open an envelope mailed to me by Care Allies (formerly Intracorp), the agency that pre-approves medical tests for my insurer, Highmark Blue Cross-Blue Shield. I guessed what it was before I opened it: a routine pre-approval for the PET/CT scan I’m having this coming Wednesday.

I usually take only the briefest of glances at these letters and put them aside. As long as I see the blessed words, “we have determined that the requested services are medically necessary,” I figure I have nothing to worry about.

This time, though, I saw something in the description of the test that concerned me. The letter reads:


“They’ve made a mistake,” I thought to myself. “Care Allies has approved me for a CT scan of the head – not the scan of the neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis I typically have. This could be trouble, if they’ve approved me for the wrong procedure.”

I went right off and dug up the paper script Dr. Lerner had given me. That made me even more concerned, because I didn’t see anything there about neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis. The handwritten script reads:

“JSUMC, PET/CT Scan, DX: Lymphoma for restaging.”

“JSUMC,” I know, means “Jersey Shore University Medical Center.” “DX” means “diagnosis.” But it sure looked to me like Dr. Lerner had left off the list of body parts that are essential to a CT scan prescription. (Previously, I’d had problems with a Care Allies CT scan pre-certification that mentioned some body parts, but omitted the others.)

I called Dr. Lerner’s office and was put through first to someone in the billing department, then to one of the nurses. She said she’d do a little checking, and called me back a few minutes later. There’s nothing to worry about, she assured me. Everything was submitted correctly. Because this is a PET/CT scan and not just a CT scan, it’s automatically a scan of the whole body, so individual sections of the body don’t need to be specified.

“Then why does the letter I received from Care Allies mention the skull?” I asked.

“The ‘TH’ probably stands for ‘thorax,’" she replied. "It’s a PET/CT scan, skull-to-thorax.”

Mystery solved. But why, I’m led to wonder, can’t the people at Care Allies who compose these letters to patients avoid using arcane jargon and abbreviations? It seems to defeat the purpose of such a letter, which is communicating with non-medical professionals. I’m not sure, actually, that even for medical professionals “TH” would scream out, “thorax.” Clearly, this letter serves the needs of the insurance bureaucrats rather than the patients.

The late comedian Steve Allen once wrote a book called Dumbth, in which he catalogues a whole lot of misuses of the English language that are, for lack of a better word, just dumb. Its title is a word of Allen’s own invention, that describes writers’ thick-headed refusal to recognize that words they’re using just aren’t communicating. His definition:

Dumbth (pron. dumth) adj: a tendency toward muddleheadedness, or willful stupidity appearing in all segments of American life

Thank you, Care Allies, for thoughtfully seeking to communicate the details of the medical procedure for which you’ve pre-approved me. I’m afraid I have to nominate you, though, for the Dumbth Award, for your clumsy way of communicating that makes life needlessly difficult for patients like me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The only way that whole thing would have been funnier is if you could find a way to make up a joke for skullth. And they say the legal profession has words that aren't user friendly! MB