Last week, I went to see my dermatologist for a full body check to make sure I don’t have melanoma. I showed up for my 3:00pm appointment a few minutes early and the receptionist said in a gruff voice, “You’re late. You had a 2:15 appointment. You can wait for the doctor to finish her office hours and be seen at the end of the day if you want”.
Hmmm….that was a little confusing since I had 3:00 in my calendar for many weeks – I made the appointment well in advance knowing that the dermatologist would need extra time for this type of appointment. So I told the receptionist that I thought there must be some mistake and asked if she could check again. By now she was really annoyed with me and said “No, you had a 2:15 appointment and it says right here that they tried to call you to confirm and your phone was out of service.” Now I was sure there was a misunderstanding since they had called to confirm my 3:00 appointment a few days earlier. So I asked her to please check that she had my name right. This time she said that I was correct (but did not offer an apology). She handed me some paperwork and said, in an accusing tone, that I was supposed to come every year and since I hadn’t been there in 3 years I had to fill out the medical history from scratch.
By the time I was called in to see the doctor (45 minutes later) I was not in a very good mood. The visit with the doctor was very pleasant and took only about 15 minutes. But overall it had been a very unpleasant (and lengthy) experience and I certainly was not anxious to repeat it in a year.
The office staff, in my opinion, are the most important people on the healthcare team and they need to be trained to believe this. They make the first impression and have tremendous power to determine the way the rest of the visit will go. If the receptionist in my dermatologist’s office had just treated me with respect, we both would have had better afternoons.
I’ve been noticing recently that the most important thing I can do in clinic is listen respectfully and come up with a shared plan that feels like the patient owns it at least as much as I do. When it goes well it almost feels like I’m handing out a prescription for respect.
So as doctors, we need to respect the expertise that patients bring to the table – they are the experts about their own symptoms and their own bodies. And we need to respect their ability to make the right medical decisions for themselves.
But we also need to make sure that everyone the patient comes in contact with – beginning with the person who schedules the appointments – understands the power of respect.