Waiting for the doctor can be bad for your health
— TD Fuego
Up till very recently, attending the hospital OPD was not something any sane person looked forward to. In order to attend the morning session, one had to leave home early. Those living far had to get up at 5.30 am in order to catch the 7 am bus that would get them to the hospital by 8.30 am. Having got there, they had to wait in a crowded, stuffy room and, sometimes, would only be seen by the doctor at 1 pm. After spending another 30 minutes collecting their medication, they would eventually return home by 3 pm, absolutely exhausted!
When we consider that we have had a Ministry of Health since our independence in 1968, it is baffling that no one had noticed the irrational rigidity of the appointment system in our hospitals till now. In this context, the recent decision by Health Minister Mrs Hanoomanjee to stagger appointment times in the OPD is nothing short of revolutionary.
Not only has her decision helped get rid of the massive congestion that was a common feature of this Department but, by reducing the length of time patients spend at the hospital, it also helps reduce the loss in productivity of those people who are still in employment. For the elderly retired, it is a Godsend that reduces the unnecessary stress that was exerted by the old, archaic, colonial appointment system.
The Private Surgery
Having taken this decisive step towards the welfare of patients in the public sector, perhaps the MoH would consider doing something similar for those who choose to be treated in the private sector. Since doctors are known to be a conservative group, they are unlikely to take any action to change the status quo, unless there is a strong directive from the authorities. Of course, this would involve prior consultation with all the stakeholders—the MoH, doctors representative bodies and patient NGOs.
It is an undeniable fact that, in spite of a reasonable public health care system, many of us still prefer to consult a private doctor, for various reasons. This applies more in the case of specialists, because it is not always so easy to be seen by one at the hospital, where there is usually a long waiting list. But, apart from the expertise, people go private for the convenience and comfort. Crucially, a private consultation allows them ample time to discuss their case with the doctor, time which is not always available in the hurly-burly environment of a hospital setting.
Unfortunately for the patient, very few medics operate an appointment system worthy of its name. If you phone a full-time private practitioner, you are told to come along any time during opening hours. Once you get there, you may find the waiting room full to capacity and can look forward to a long, long wait. If it happens to be a specialist who is employed full-time in the public sector, you are asked to come any time between 4 pm and closing time which, in theory may be 6 pm, but in reality can be as late as 8 pm. So, it happens that some patients end up having to wait for up to 3 hours on a busy day. You can imagine the state of mind (and health!) of a severely arthritic or cardiac patient after sitting immobile on a chair for this length of time.
Worse still, in some cases, the waiting room is so small that late-comers are forced to brave the elements and stand outside the surgery. Yet, in other cases, the hygiene leaves a lot to be desired; the floor does not seem to have seen mop in months and there are bits of bloody cotton wool lying around. ET would scarce believe we are living in the 21st Century!
In a doctor/patient relationship, it is clearly the doctor who has the upper hand. It is probably the only relationship where the paying customer is powerless to do anything much. If necessary, the doctor can “withdraw” his services. The patient, on the other hand, has no such option. He is obliged to consult the doctor no matter what because, unlike the doctor, he must consult him because there may be no other specialist in the particular specialty he needs in his town or, indeed, in the whole country. Consequently, by treating a patient with any degree of indifference like making him wait for hours, the doctor may be deemed to be taking an unfair advantage that arises from this unequal relationship.
A Change of Attitude
Yet, a little change of attitude is all that is required to bring satisfaction to both parties. It is simply inconceivable that, in this age of cyberspace and easy mass communication, a way can’t be found to give patients a firm booking to see their doctors. It is in the interest of all stakeholders, especially the fee-paying patient, to work towards a satisfactory solution.
I am sure that doctors themselves would not wish their sick parent, spouse or child to wait interminably at anyone’s surgery. So why, please why inflict this misery on their patients? In the name of humanity, we urge you; please do give better consideration to them, because they are often too ill to withstand the discomfort of a long wait. There is no doubt that they would greatly welcome an appointment system which allows them be seen reasonably close to a given time. Above all, it would demonstrate to everyone that, having chosen a caring profession, YOU DO REALLY CARE.