‘Please take a seat,’ are the four words I’ve come to dread the most. They make me want to ask: “If I have an appointment and I am on time, why on earth should I have to take a seat?”
No matter. Whether it’s a corporate hospital or the clinic down the road, whether you’re arriving for an annual check-up or a routine follow-up, know this about the medical profession —you will be told: “Please take a seat.” Please also take War and Peace. You might actually finish a great chunk of it before you get to see the doctor. At a recent visit, the doctor reads my mother’s blood pressure and wonders: “Why so high?” It doesn’t take a medical degree to diagnose: If you make an 81-year-old wait in your crowded reception area for two hours, BP will rise.
I ask my fellow patients what time they have been called. Six people tell me their appointment is for 3 pm It doesn’t take genius to spread out appointments, say, 15 minutes per patient, with an allowance for breathing time.
I’m not talking about government hospitals where doctors soldier on, over-worked, over-stressed, and underpaid. I’m talking about hospitals with charges that make luxury goods affordable by comparison. I’m talking about hospitals that operate on the belief that it is a seller’s market. But making a patient wait sometimes for two hours says just one thing to me: I don’t respect your time. I didn’t ask you to come, and if you chose me, then please take a seat.
Waiting for any appointment to come through is vexing. But a doctor’s waiting room is particularly stressful. You’re there because you are unwell. You’re there because you want to discuss a report you cannot understand. You’re there after taking time off from work. Certainly you don’t want to be hanging around longer than necessary. Certainly you don’t want to pick up new infections from the waiting room.
To be fair, part of the blame for the endless wait at the doctor’s clinic lies with patients. Patients arrive late. Often they arrive with family, friends and assorted well wishers, each armed with a list of questions. Then, there’s the ‘VIP’ patient who will breeze past the receptionist, pop into the doctor’s office and disappear for 30 minutes. Appointments take longer than anticipated. Emergencies crop up. Equipment breaks down. Fair enough.
But part of the problem also is that doctors are loathe to turn away patients. At R800 or more a consult, the more, the richer.
Then there are doctors who see a packed waiting room as a badge of honour. Some doctors “routinely make patients wait for two to three hours and then boast that patients are willing to put up with so much trouble in order to see them,” says Mumbai-based IVF specialist Dr Aniruddha Malpani.
How long you end up waiting is also a function of how popular a doctor is. Most patients find doctors by asking around -- who’s the best doctor for delivering a baby? Fixing a broken hip? The bigger the reputation, the longer the wait. But what to do? When you’re sick or desperate, you want the ‘best’. And so, patients will plead for just two minutes with the Big Guy. Waiting? No problem.
“Doctors don’t respect patients because patients don’t demand respect,” says Dr Malpani. Is there a way out? Here’s what patients can do. They can come prepared, study the web, make a list of symptoms and questions. Doctors on their part could leverage technology. Put up information on a website, for instance, so that patients have basic questions answered before they come in. At some practices, patients are put to work as soon as they enter, filling out forms, getting vitals checked by a nurse, consulting with a junior doctor before the senior doctor sees them. It saves the doctor’s time; keeps the patient busy.
Above all, as patients we need to realise we have a choice. Doctor makes you wait for no good reason? Walk out. Find a new doctor. You’ll be happier, and healthier, for it.
The views expressed by the author are personal