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Vol. XXVII No. 24, April 1-15, 2018

Waiting in the waiting room

by Sudha Umashanker

Madras always had, and continues to have, some of the best doctors and medical talent. Yet I think we would all largely agree that it is no fun going to most doctors these days. Gone are the days when doctors were like family friends, punctual to boot, had all the time and would see patients in homely spaces. With corporatisation of healthcare and even polyclinics being fitted out with cubicles, workstations and what-have-you, not to forget the great wall – secretaries – to get past, and an overworked doctor who is rushed for time, it is surprising that people even make the trip to have a problem addressed.

We have all heard of waiting rooms, but today this acquires a new meaning. I used to think that the only specialists who were difficult to see were the cardiologists, obstetricians and trauma care specialists because they could be summoned to attend to a critical patient 24×7, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Even you were inclined to complain, the restraining thought always was “What if I were in that patient’s position?”. And we waited, whiling away the time by, generally, looking around and exchanging notes with fellow patients, trying to read back issues (no Illustrated Weekly these days) or craning our necks to watch inane programmes beamed on the telly or wrote, doodled, or muttered chants and prayers. Secretaries meanwhile give cryptic answers and feign complete ignorance of the doctor’s whereabouts when it is well past appointment time and the queue hasn’t moved.

One reason why patients are kept waiting is because, I suspect, doctors don’t leave for the consultations until they have made sure that at least a percentage of the patients have reported to the desk and are waiting. Fair enough, because many patients too don’t arrive on time. But my problem is when appointments are given as late as 9 PM and the doc is nearly an hour behind schedule. At what time are we hapless patients expected to go back, wash up and have dinner? And if there are children in the waiting room, young mothers are forced to whip out packed dinners, feed the child (easier said than done) and even get ready to rock them to sleep.

Clever nurses who double as secretaries give appointments at the exact same time that doctors are on rounds! So, when you make an extra special effort to beat the traffic and get there ahead of time, you experience a mixture of disappointment and frustration when you are made to wait for at least an hour and a half (which is the norm in most corporate hospitals). Some time is spent on filling out the Registration form(if you are a first-timer), repeating your history to the junior doctor or updating him/her, have the nurse weigh you, making the payment etc., and then you wait for what seems like an eternity to hear your name being called. Elderly patients who have made the trip from the suburbs and are diabetic often debate whether to hold on just a while longer or leave or grab a bite (hospital cafeterias are not an option). On a recent visit, a wife who had taken permission from the office to meet the doctor almost got into a fight with her husband when the doctor stepped out. The argument being over whether he stepped out for a loo break or for lunch and whether or not they should wait because she was also ravenous. Peace returned only when the doctor materialised again.

Another group of doctors are the types who make you wait for whatever reason, but once inside the consulting room chat you up so warmly that you begin to feel guilty for the others waiting outside. All anger vanishes by the time you are done, but the only thing you have to take care of is not to look any other patient in the eye for taking so long.

Calling before you leave for the clinic and enquiring where you figure in the pecking order or asking for the last appointment for the day are measures regular patients adopt to save time. No guarantees against any surprises, but at least one tried.

If you have no choice but to twiddle your thumbs, the waiting hour is the best time to play some mindless games on the phone or free up ‘Memory’ by deleting unwanted mails and messages.

On a recent visit to the dentist’s office for routine scaling, the junior doc left the patient who happened to be my friend quietly at one point without any explanation. Prior to that she had heard her asking the nurse for a pin tip so had, presumably gone looking for the accessory herself. Minutes ticked by with no sign of the doc’s return. My anxious friend queried the nurse who said she had gone to talk to a patient coming out of surgery, counselled by her. Then, even the nurse vanished. Panic struck her. What the hell was going on? Did she find something unusual in her gums or tooth and what would happen if the anaesthetic gel wore off by the time she returned? “Hello, hello anybody here?” yelled the friend. The doctor returned and responded to the “What happened? Where were you?” somewhat coolly but not convincingly. Still fuming when she left the clinic my friend received a SMS from a healthcare company that books appointments asking to rate the duty doc. How would you describe your experience?

She was tempted to get even – a tooth for a tooth would have been nice – and tell it like it was, but with doctors aka demigods she realised impulsive actions would only lead to long-term complications. Maybe the doctors have their own side of the story. As for us patients, as long as we are likely to get sick we need doctors more than they need us.

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