Hitting a Nerve

How an office theft can change your habits


Last week, my secretary was checking a patient out when I went into the little galley area across from her desk to get coffee. Unfortunately, I knocked the pot over and it broke, sending glass and hot coffee everywhere.

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My secretary asked the patient to wait a minute, grabbed a roll of paper towels that was behind her, and ran over to help me clean up. She was with me for 1-2 minutes, then returned to finish signing the patient out while I picked up glass shards.

A while later, we realized that somewhere in that 2 minutes an envelope containing roughly $200 in copays had disappeared from her desk drawer. It had been there 30 minutes before when another patient had paid a copay in cash, and now it was gone.

My secretary? No. She’s been with me for more than 15 years. She’s never stolen from the practice before, so why would she start now? I trust her.

The only people who had access to the drawer in that time were the patient, her, and me. While the money was out of sight, it was within reach of anyone who leaned over the counter, opened the drawer to look through it, and grabbed it.

I admit I probably should have gone to the bank sooner. Normally, we only have $20-$40 in small bills on hand, which we use for change. Most people prefer credit cards. But in the 2-3 weeks before this, we had had an unusual number of people using cash for copays. Combined with a crazier schedule than usual, I just hadn’t had a chance to deposit the bills.

Obviously, I’m not going to do that again.

Generally, no one has a chance to reach over and grab the drawer, either. When a patient is checking out, my secretary is always there making the transaction. But this one time, we had an unexpected distraction and she left the desk to help me.

She’s not going to do that again with someone standing there, either.

$200 isn’t, even in a small practice, a make-or-break amount. It stings, but I’ll still be able to make payroll and pay the rent. At the end of the year, it will have to come out of my own salary, because that’s the nature of owning a business. I can’t (and wouldn’t) charge the next 200 patients a $1 “administrative fee” to cover it.

Of course, it’s possible I’m accusing the wrong person. But there wasn’t anyone in the office besides me, my secretary, and the patient in that time frame. I don’t have any actual proof, like a video, though, so I certainly can’t press charges. She didn’t schedule a follow-up visit, either, so doubt she’ll be coming back.

Why would a patient steal from a doctor who’s trying to help her? Money is the simple answer. She had an opportunity to look and take it, and she did. Her moral compass must be skewed toward dishonesty, and she took advantage of the situation. I doubt it was anything personal against me, or doctors, or the situation in general. She’s a thief, and in her mind, it was a business decision.

Of course, I could be wrong on that point. Maybe she did rationalize it by the incorrect, but widespread, belief that doctors are “rich.” In her mind, she may have thought I’d never notice it, therefore there’s nothing wrong with stealing from me.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Do I hold it against future patients? No. In 20 years this is the first time one has stolen anything of significant financial value from my office (we’ve lost pens, magazines, a stapler, and a snowman-shaped candy dish in the past). The vast majority of my patients are decent people who wouldn’t do something like this.

But it does cast a pall over new patients we don’t know. Next time I need help while someone’s being checked out, my secretary won’t be able to give it. Any amount over a few small bills for change will be promptly taken to the bank.

It’s a bitter pill that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not harmful in the grand scheme of things, but certainly unpleasant. My job is based on the idea that people trust me to do my best for them, and in return, I trust them to be honest with me in return.

But one morning last week, it was just a one-way street.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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