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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I have a problem. My husband and I recently moved to New York City where there are lots of elevators. We're having a minor disagreement over elevator etiquette.

My husband lets all the women exit the elevator before going out himself. This means I have to wait outside the elevator for him to join me so we can continue on our way. He insists he is being polite. I say he is being rude to me by making me wait for him. -- IMPATIENT IN NEW YORK

DEAR IMPATIENT: Your husband is showing good manners by allowing the women to exit the elevator first. The obvious solution to your problem is to remain inside the elevator with your husband and exit with him, or just ahead of him.

DEAR ABBY: This is in response to the reader who was upset with her doctor's receptionist for asking too many questions. I work for a large medical practice as a phone receptionist. It is my job to prioritize incoming calls and determine which are emergencies, how soon patients need to be seen, and how much time the doctor will need with them. I'm dedicated to making sure our patients get the care they need, and it's my duty to ask as many questions as I deem necessary to accomplish that. I am not being nosy, and I am never rude to patients -- but I am often told that a problem is "none of my business."

I answer hundreds of phone calls a day -- with problems ranging from colds to heart attacks, acne to suicide attempts. I've had people with chest pains tell me they can wait two weeks to see the doctor, and people with warts tell me they need an emergency appointment. I've had a patient schedule an appointment for a cough who was actually suffering from depression -- both would need to be seen quickly, but one is for 15 minutes and the other needs an hour appointment. (Yes, we did run an hour behind for the rest of the day's schedule.)

Most people who call do not have a medical background, and cannot be objective about their problems. At least 25 percent of the callers do not want to give me any information. I am legally bound to keep all patient information private, and there's nothing any of them could tell me that I haven't heard before.

If you are uncomfortable with certain words, be a little creative: Say "stress" if depression makes you uncomfortable, "diet counseling" if you suffer from obesity. But please don't tell me "allergies" if you mean substance abuse, and "I'm sick" isn't quite enough information.

Abby, every call we receive is important, and I don't want to keep callers on the line any longer than I have to, so please inform your readers that if I stop to ask a few questions about a patient's condition, it's because I'm concerned about them and am trying to help. This is what the doctor hired me to do. -- MEDICAL RECEPTIONIST

DEAR RECEPTIONIST: Perhaps this is a problem of perception, but many patients regard their medical problems as something very personal. They perceive questions from a receptionist -- however well-intentioned -- as an attempt to intervene in their relationship with their doctor, and they react defensively. I hope your letter will give these people some food for thought.

I have heard from other medical receptionists who also felt I was too harsh in labeling the receptionist mentioned in the letter as "undiplomatic" without hearing her side first, and advising the writer to discuss her feelings with her doctor. However, if I were the doctor, and one of my employees was perceived as heavy-handed, I would want to know so that I could counsel that person.

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