The Waiting Room

I know that as a doctor, I am supposed have the patience and tolerance of a saint, but there’s nothing that makes my blood boil as much as a patient saying to me, ‘I have been waiting for a long time.’

I try very hard to stay on time with both my clinics and operating lists as much a possible. This is because I understand the frustration of waiting, and I am considerate of the importance of other people’s time, but most of all, I hate seeing my staff being abused. I always minimise double-booking time slots as much as possible, I block off time for travelling between hospitals and clinics, and I allocate time according to the type of condition. However, unforeseen circumstances happens from time to time. Sick patients on morning ward rounds that makes me late to my office, unexpected cancer diagnosis of a patient requiring an extra half an hour to ask questions and discuss options, an add-on referral from the emergency department of someone who has injured themselves, a post-op patient who developed an infection that I have to squeeze in between other patients in my dressing clinic, an urgent phone-call from a colleague with a difficult problem, an operation that took twice as long because the cancer was more extensive than what the scan showed, a patient who brought his whole family into the consultation to ask me a barrage of questions about his operation, a call-back to the operating room in the middle of a busy clinic because another surgeon rang into trouble requiring an extra pair of hands, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, all I need is one delay and the rest of the day crumbles under the domino effect. Initially, it may be a 1/2 hour delay, by the end of the day, depending on how many interruptions and unexpected events, it could culminate to hours. Often, meal times are sacrificed with chicken nuggets and chips eaten in the car running in between hospitals, not to mention, a surgeon’s bladder is not only developed because of long operations, but tested during a busy clinic where a toilet break is humanly impossible with a full waiting room.

So, when I am meeting my 20th patient for the day, I am often unsure as to how to respond when the first thing he/she says is ‘I have been waiting for a long time.’

The following responses come to mind.

‘I am sorry, I was just practicing my putting in my office with the new golf clubs I got for Christmas, whilst everyone was sitting in the waiting room’.

‘Really? Well, I had just finished the loveliest 2-hour champagne lunch with my girlfriends in the sun on the terrace at Stamford.’

‘Oh, did you have somewhere that you had to go after your operation? I am pretty sure you are booked in to rest in bed for 5 days.’

‘Good afternoon to you too. I am more than happy to spend the next 5 minutes of your consultation explaining why I am running late or we could just get on with what you’ve come to see me about today.’

‘I am sorry for your wait, I had to google your operation and watch it on Youtube a few times to make sure I know what to do when you are on the table.’

‘I was busy this morning, because I had to sell my stocks and buy some new ones when the stock-market opened this morning. Tell you what, I made a killing today.’

‘Well, I’d better do your operation quickly as not to keep others waiting.’

‘I had to catch up on all the posts on Facebook and Instagram. Hang on a sec, I need to twit about the rude patient I am seeing right now.’

‘Wow, have you? So have I, I have been here since 7am waiting to get my hands on you!’ *insert evil laugh here*

‘Is that so? Well, I tell you what we are going to do about that. I am going to turn around and walk away, when I come back, we will try this again, let’s see if you can start with “Hello”.’

‘We can get the operations done faster without an anaesthetic if you want.’

‘Yeah, sorry about that, but there was this really cute surgeon I just met in the tearoom and we had a quickie in the utility cupboard.’

There is an endless of responses I have silently accumulated over the last decade. Yes, I only use my ‘inside voice’ for situations like this. On the outside, I just take a deep breath to counteract the my rising blood pressure and to suppress the steam that is about to burst from my ears. I smile and I say, (through clenched teeth) ‘Let’s have a look at what you are here for today.’

If your surgery or appointment is at the end of a day, and you have been waiting for hours, the last thing your harassed, tired and frazzled surgeon need to hear is ‘I have been waiting a long time.’ Even if you are the first patient in the morning, and your surgeon arrives late, it is most likely that he/she have been up since 5am, dealing with the stress of sorting out some sick postoperative patients on the ward. We do not deliberate run late or keep our patients waiting because we think our time is more important. We run late simply because we have not control over time, or the factors that take it away from us.

But to be brutally honest (and more importantly), don’t piss off your surgeon before your operation, just remember who is asleep and who is holding the sharp instrument.

There is a reason why it is called a Waiting Room.


15 thoughts on “The Waiting Room

  1. I have found a pre-emptive “I am sorry for the wait, thank you for your patience” goes a long way to defusing expressions of patient frustrations about waiting. It acknowledges the delay, respects their wait, and let’s them know I am sorry for their lost time.

  2. Sick people (and people who think they’re sick) tend to forget just how power an MD actually wields, it’s true.
    Wonderful post.
    Good to be back here again.

  3. Hahaha your “silent responses” are hilarious!

    It’s often like that in pharmacies too – a lot of people get impatient because they think all we do is “stick labels on boxes”. They don’t realise that there are a lot of checks we have to do, and, like you said, sometimes it’s necessary to spend a bit more time with certain patients.

    I’ve heard that using “thanks for waiting” is better than saying “sorry about the wait” because it sounds more positive or something. (Besides, no reason to be sorry when we have legitimate reasons for making them wait, right?)

    • I stopped used ‘sorry about the wait’ ever since I got the reply ‘so you should be.’ 😦
      I am amazed to hear that pharmacists do more than just putting stickers on boxes 😛 hehehe.

  4. As someone who works in the front office of a surgeon’s office, my favorite is when a patient comes 45 minutes EARLY, only to stare us down as if we’re running late. It really doesn’t matter what facet of “customer service” you’re in, people can be an ass whether they’re getting coffee or having surgery.

  5. As a patient, my solution is simple. If a doc repeatedly runs late I either change docs (I did that with a gynecologist — not that it was his fault but it was a group and they would schedule appointments when he was on call for delivery. After being turned away a few times after an hour wait, I got frustrated.) or I compensate. I have the best breast cancer surgeon in the area. He was always late because he did what he needed to do. A good friend went in for an appointment after a test and he cleared his schedule so she could have surgery the next day for her stage 4 cancer. I learned to call prior to the appointment and ask how late he was running. I was working then and it helped me manage my time off from work and my desire to have the best. Whenever he went into a room with the patient he always initially apologized for the wait even if there wasn’t any. I get more frustrated when I schedule a “first” appointment and it runs incredibly late. It helps if the staff lets me know. My current PC is wonderful. He’s always on time and I don’t know how he does it. For my annual last week he spent 45 minutes with me.

    • We call people too, although my poor receptionist is often too busy fending people at the desk and I feel for her as she often gets abused on the phone when she calls to let people know …. 😦

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