Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Little Bit of Empowerment

It may not surprise you to learn that, as a general rule, I don't put up with a lot of crap.

One of the things that falls under my definition of "crap" is egomania.

Another is power-tripping (not the same thing).

A third—and this is the one that's most relevant at the moment—is the completely avoidable screw-up.

Unavoidable screw-ups, unpleasant as they may be, are just a fact of life. Sometimes things just happen, and you pretty much have to D-14.

But screw-ups that could have been avoided—by planning ahead, or not cutting corners, or simply telling the truth—those just burn me up.

Always have.

And, wouldn't you know it, one of those happened to me the other day.

I had an appointment with one of my doctors—an absolutely lovely man who has to be closing in on 80—scheduled for 11:45AM on Monday. I made the appointment three months ago, when I wasn't working, and the middle of the day seemed like a perfectly convenient time to get myself to the Upper East Side.

Fast-forward 12 weeks, and I'm temping in midtown. Now the middle of the day isn't quite so convenient, what with travel time and getting paid by the hour and all.

So before I head out for the appointment, I call and ask whether the doctor is running late. Because whenever I go to see him, there's usually a delay. Partly this is because he is old-school—he does the whole exam himself, rather than delegating things like blood-pressure readings to a nurse, and then he sits down and has a chat with you in his office. And partly it's because pretty much every doctor in private practice runs behind schedule these days.

As I said, he's a lovely man, and I am very satisfied with the care I get, so I've made peace with the fact that I have to waste good quality time in his not-so-comfortable, not-so-interesting waiting room.

When it's my own time I'm wasting, it's a sacrifice I can afford to make. But when I have to call in my hours at the end of every shift and fill out a timesheet in quadruplicate, well, then, it's not exactly my time, and I can't really afford—literally—to be so cavalier with it.

Hence my so-how-far-behind-are-you-guys? phone call at 11:15AM.

I was more than surprised to hear that the doctor was on time, so much so that I had to rush out of the office so that I wouldn't be late myself.

I ended up arriving at 11:50AM and finding a full waiting room, where I sat for the next hour.

A couple of other patients got up and hassled the receptionist about the wait, but I was very Zen about it. At first.

Then I started rehearsing in my head the speech I was going to give the doctor, about how much I liked being his patient but that sitting in his waiting room, where a revolt might break out at any moment, was not exactly a pleasant experience, and that I couldn't devote half a day to the cause every time I had a quarterly check-up.

I spent a while refining the speech, trying to find a balance between acknowledging the unforeseeable delays while rejecting the standard-operating-procedure long wait, and trying to be clear that my complaint was not with him as a doctor but as a manager of his office and staff.

Finally, after my talking points were as refined as they were going to get, I realized that I had already been away from work for an hour and a half and that it would take me almost another 30 minutes to get back. I had said that I'd be taking a long lunch in order to see the doctor, but two hours was pushing it.

And then it dawned on me that I was not powerless in this situation.

I did not have to accept an interminable wait.

I could exercise my free will.

So I got up and, unlike some of my fellow patients, very politely explained that I was unable to wait any longer. It was hard to get the receptionist's attention because she was juggling phone calls and the appointment book, but the nurse heard me.

She must have thought that this was some kind of negotiating tactic, because she tried to tell me that I was next and that a room would be open soon.

I told her that it no longer mattered, because even if the doctor could see me right that very minute, I no longer had time to get undressed, be examined, get dressed again, and then sit down with him in his office for the usual post-exam chat. Doing all of that would easily be another 30 minutes, plus I'd have to spend time paying my bill (the doctor doesn't take insurance) and making a follow-up appointment three months down the road, and soon I'd have spent more time away from the office than at work that day.

The nurse didn't know what to make of this.

I wasn't bluffing. I wasn't irate. I wasn't irrational.

She didn't know how to respond. I think she even said as much.

I explained that I had tried to avoid exactly this situation by calling before I came, but that I'd been told that the doctor was on time. By then I was pretty sure that it was this nurse, and not the receptionist, who had taken my call.

"He was on time," she protested.


How does that work exactly?

You're on time at 11:15AM but an hour behind schedule at 11:45AM?

Is that some kind of reverse-time-travel trick?

I expressed my skepticism—politely, calmly, but firmly. In return, I got a torrent of "I can't control the doctor"-type excuses—the same excuses I had heard her give the other, not-so-polite patients a little while before. I started to feel like a passenger on an inexplicably delayed flight, when all you really want is for someone to apologize and give you a straight answer about why you are going to miss your cousin's bat mitzvah or your friend's wedding or your connecting flight or whatever.

Kindness and truth go a very long way in this world. I'm surprised more people haven't figured this out.

I stood there for a moment, waiting for the receptionist to free up so I could try to reschedule the appointment, but she was wrapped up with a complicated—and irate—phone call.

Eventually I gave up and said I'd call later on, and I started walking for the door.

The nurse must have thought this was another negotiating tactic, because she called me back, saying that the receptionist was trying—in pantomime, it turned out—to give me a new appointment. The poor woman could not extricate herself for even a second from her phone call, so she turned the appointment book around and pointed to an opening at 8:30AM on Thursday.

I looked at it, then at her. I didn't have my calendar in front of me, so I shrugged my shoulders. Finally, I just nodded and left.

I raced back to work, skipping lunch and deducting two fruitless hours from my timesheet.

What's funny is that I had actually tried to reschedule the appointment a couple of weeks earlier but was told that the doctor was fully booked for the next two months. I didn't think it was prudent to delay that long, so I stuck with the original date. I was fully expecting that waiting those two months would be the consequence of my decision to walk out on Monday's appointment, and I was prepared to do that. Instead, I got a better time the very same week.

What's even funnier is that yesterday, as I was walking up the block where the doctor has his office, my cell phone rang with a blocked ID. It was 8:20AM, and my immediate thought was that there was some kind of family emergency.

It wasn't.

It was the nurse from the doctor's office. Apparently I had gotten the appointment time wrong—what I thought was 8:30 was actually 8:15. (Just before the phone rang, I had been chastising myself for arriving 10 minutes early, knowing that that time could have been much better spent—asleep, for example.)

The nurse was calling to find out if I was actually planning to show up for the appointment.

Because I was five minutes late.


Blogger robin said...

This is such a well-written post, and we've all been there with members of the medical profession, who feign some type of sympathy once they think they've "really" pissed someone off. I love that you called them on it in a polite way. There are some great nurses and medical receptionists out there, but the majority seem to be either overworked, or incredibly uncaring.

February 18, 2008 5:53 PM  

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