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  • Writer's pictureShruti

through the looking (or sometimes bulletproof) glass

People with chronic illnesses spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. Or, to be more accurate, we spend a lot of time in their waiting rooms. We sit there reading ancient issues of People Magazine. (If we’re lucky, that is. More often, we’re stuck idly flipping through a magazine about some weird or obscure topic like moths, wondering why on earth the office would choose to subscribe to THAT magazine given the hundreds of options out there… ) But the magazines are the least of our worries.

I’d guess that almost every one of us has a horror story or two to share about interactions with the staff. They double book appointments then make us wait for hours upon hours. They don’t tell us how much paperwork we have to fill out until we arrive, then say we have to wait now because we missed our appointment time while we were filling it out… and after all that they then proceed lose it. Don’t even get me started on incorrectly billed visits that lead to hours wasted arguing with insurance companies. Getting a copy of your medical record is a royal pain: you have to request a copy on the specific day that the staff member is around, and then come back the next week to collect it. There was a lot of truth to that Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is trying to get a look at her medical record…

Still, how many of us have seen life from the other side of the counter? I’ve worked as the triage greeter in an Emergency Room and, repeatedly, as the person who discusses research studies with you and acquires your consent. Let me tell you something, it isn’t too pretty on the other side either. There are mountains upon mountains of paperwork. Despite your best efforts at an organizational filing system, things somehow end up in the wrong places. Scheduling is a nightmare – people are never available when you need them to be. Most of the staff are overworked and underpaid. In some emergency rooms, they’re stuck behind a bulletproof glass just so that they are safe at work.

We are frustrated people, and I don’t think we’re out of line to be. We deal with an awful lot of pain, endless medications, exhaustion, eating restrictions, and people who don’t understand what we’re going through. We need to take out our frustration on someone, and they often bear the brunt of it because… well, because they’re the contact people… they give us the bad news that we’re number 50 in the queue … or that the paperwork we spent an hour filling out last time has been lost and must be filled out again …  that the next available appointment isn’t for another 6 months… and so on. How many times per day do they deliver bad news? More times than I’d like to disappoint people, I’m sure. I think I’d feel terrible. And their frustration shows when they start getting snippy at us.

The thing is though, we spend so much time getting frustrated about their failures that we rarely thank them for the favors they do manage to grant us. I’ve seen them use up their personal text messaging (SMS) allowance to communicate with me because I can’t take calls during class times. I’ve seen them call and argue and shout and plead with scan labs to please, please squeeze in an appointment for me. I found out from the lady running my scan once that the secretary at my doctor’s office had called every day for the past month to see if an appointment had been cancelled in order to get me an earlier one. She never told me that, she just called and informed me “an appointment has opened up” … and let’s not forget when they squeeze us in because, as hard as we tried, we were too sick to make it to our scheduled appointment the week before. Or we desperately need an appointment that very day.

Think about the demands that we make … please be open more hours, please have more staff on hand, please magically fit us in… are they reasonable? Not always. Doctors have lives too – and most of them have their own illnesses, we just don’t know about them. Even if they could hire more doctors and more staff to be open longer, can we really afford for our healthcare costs to go up even further? We want them to upgrade their systems so we can book online like the dentist’s office (or some other clinic) let’s us do, but more efficient systems require money – and appointment slots cancelled in order to train staff. It takes time for those things to be implemented. I agree that they’re fantastic, and I think most clinics intend to implement them – when it’s possible. And as for fitting us in… no doubt we are definitely in need of an appointment ASAP… but it’s easy to forget that the people who are scheduled for that appointment slot we want might have been waiting for months just like we’ve been asked to. We get irritated when someone is squeezed in ahead of us, but forget that we were irritating someone else when they managed to squeeze us in last week. All those patients that are ahead of us on the list might be just as much in need, but it’s easy to forget that. They’re just theoretical. We don’t have names or faces to make them real. Meanwhile we can feel our own pains and want them to just stop already.

A lot of times our frustration IS well placed, but I think it’s only fair to thank them when they help us out. (If we even know that they’ve done that for us). So the next time you’re having a frustrating experience with the staff at your clinic or hospital, remember: they’re only human.

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