You walk into a restaurant and ask for a coffee. The place is busy but you’re told you’ll be served in 10 minutes so you sit and wait. Like the proverbial cheque in the mail, it takes a long time coming. Half an hour on when you still see no signs of it, you either create a scene and insist on being served at once or walk out and look for a more client-friendly restaurant.
Now picture yourself in a clinic or hospital. I’m not talking about overcrowded public hospitals but privately-owned ones where they charge you for band-aids that most of us offer free to complete strangers in need. The only difference is that instead of coffee, you’re seeking medical attention for your sick parent or child. You’ve called ahead and booked an appointment. You take care to reach in time, you pay for the consultation, and then the wait begins. First the nurse — they come in two kinds, smiley or surly — tells you the doctor is stuck dealing with an “unexpected emergency” (not that there’s ever an expected one, but you let that go), next you’re told she’s on her way to the clinic, then you’re told she’s caught in a traffic snarl (or another emergency, if it’s the same hospital), and by the time she reaches you well over an hour late without an apology, you’re too worried and tired to do anything other than get the appointment over with and go home.
Far more painful than injury and illness are the inevitable queues and long waits at clinics and hospitals. Anyone’s who has ever been to a doctor — even the ones you know well — knows it’s impossible to plan your day around an appointment. Long waits are justified in the public sector, where treatment is subsidised and there are too many people and too few doctors, but why should it be so in for-profit hospitals? Medical care is part of the service sector where the patient pays for the services offered, yet most patients are made to feel fortunate for the doctor having found time for them.
The problem, I’m convinced, is that most doctors arrogantly believe their behaviour is justified because they are in the business of saving lives. Sure, some of them save more than one life each day, but it’s a very small percentage. The worst emergencies most encounter is a nose that hasn’t stopped running for two days or a scan that they cannot decipher because it’s been done using a machine that’s different from the one they have in their hospital or clinic.
So, if elective surgeries and the flu are their bread and butter, why can’t most doctors ever be on time? There are only two embarrassing possibilities — they are either terrible at time management or they are greedy and try to fit in more patients than they can treat. This is altruistic only in the public sector where doctors’ salaries are not dependent on the numbers they treat, but is unacceptable in the private sector, where medical charges are humongous.
But there are times queues are not an option, such as when you need certificates and mandatory vaccinations. Anyone who has got vaccinated for yellow fever before travel to certain countries in South America and Africa will know it is a bit like applying for a US or EU visa for the first time — you queue up and hope desperately that your turns comes before closing time. At best, it takes a couple of hours, after you having spent time looking for the nondescript vaccination room tucked away between the unused building and the diphtheria dispensary.
This week, I was impressed with the efficiency in which polio drops are being dispensed to travellers to seven countries — Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Syria. It took doctors at Delhi Government Dispensary at PVR Saket exactly 5 minutes to give me two very bitter polio drops and hand me a certificate. If all government clinics work half as well, private hospitals may lose business if they don’t upgrade their doctors’ patient-handling skills very quickly.