Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Doctors' Receptionists From Hell

What is it about some doctors’ receptionists that make them think that because they answer the phones (sometimes, when they feel like it) for medically trained professionals, they themselves are entitled to some sort of special respect? Odd though it may seem to this particular breed, being a doctor’s receptionist doesn’t actually automatically qualify you to be insensitive, overbearing and generally just exceedingly unpleasant.

I’ve known some really charming doctors’ receptionists in my life, but they’re vastly outnumbered by these arrogant, loud and often plain rude women (I’ve never met a male one).

These are the people who refer to the doctor as just ‘doctor’, dropping the definite article as if even it were beneath their contempt (‘I’ll check if doctor can see you now’; ‘Doctor says you must go for X-rays’; ‘No, you can’t speak to doctor, he’s far too busy and important to waste time on a nonentity like you’).

They’re also the ones who police the appointment book with a ruthlessness that can do fairly serious emotional damage to the less-than-sturdy. Unless your arm is actually severed from your body or you can prove that you’re in imminent danger of death, don’t expect an appointment within the next three months. An emergency? What kind of emergency? You don’t want to tell me? It’s personal? In that case, sorreee for you, the soonest doctor can see you is in November, and that’s only if she gets a cancellation. Or you can cough up and tell me – a mere receptionist with, quite likely, zero tertiary education and under no obligation, moral or otherwise, not to blurt patients’ most heinous secrets to anyone I feel like – exactly what the problem is.

Then you turn up five minutes late for an appointment that you made three months ago, and that’s only because you were mugged on the way in or your mother died or something. Well, sorreee for you, you’ll just have to sit and wait until doctor has time to see you – he's simply way too busy and important to be kept waiting for five whole minutes by the likes of you.

On the other hand, should doctor be running late, sorreee for you, whatever other arrangements you’ve made that are being totally screwed by 'doctor's' inability to not overbook her appointments – that’s not our problem, is it?

I recently had to make an urgent appointment for my son with our local doctors’ practice. I’m not a great fan of theirs – they’ve done things in the past like give my daughter antibiotics when I specifically told them she was allergic, hand out strong antidepressants like sweets (which I thought might be fun until I accepted a script and ended up becoming suicidally depressed), and allow me almost to die of tickbite fever from a simple inability to identify what turned out to be mindbogglingly obvious symptoms – but they’re close by, we’ve been on their books for eight years, and they can usually fit us in in an emergency.

But, apparently, they’ve also just got a new receptionist – one of those straight from the deepest, darkest pits of hell.

First, she wanted to know what was wrong with my son. ‘He can discuss that with the doctor,’ I said firmly.

She sniffed. ‘I hope you’re not going to waste doctor’s time,’ she said (and there it was: ‘doctor’ without the ‘the’ – I just knew this was going to be awful). ‘If he needs X-rays…’

‘He doesn’t need X-rays,’ I said. ‘What times do you have free today?’

There was a frosty silence, then she said, ‘Four-thirty.’

I said, ‘That’s problematic for me. I have to fetch my daughter in [the next town, 20 kilometres away] at 4.30. Haven’t you got anything earlier or later?’

‘Four-thirty,’ she repeated. ‘Take it or leave it.’ (She used those actual words. Serious.)

I took it, then phoned my daughter and told her to go to a friend’s and wait for me there. I reckoned I’d be able to fetch her an hour later, at 5.30pm.

My son and I were at the doctor’s at 4.30pm on the dot. When we walked in, there were two people sitting in the reception, the phones were ringing off the hook, and the Receptionist From Hell was having a jolly good ole chat with some random person (not a patient) about a flat tyre she’d got on her way to work that morning – I know this because I stood in her peripheral vision for about 10 minutes, listening to both this conversation and the phones ringing away unanswered, while she totally ignored both me and them.

Finally, she wrapped up her conversation, then, at her leisure, answered a phone. Listening to the conversation made me cringe – it was classic Receptionist From Hell stuff. What was the matter with the person? No, what exactly was the matter? How long had it been that way? What colour was the discharge? And on and on, until (and this amazed me) she actually persuaded whoever the poor person was on the other end of the phone to go to hospital for X-rays (lord knows, I hope he or she needed them).

Then she carefully put the phone back in its cradle, turned to me (we were sitting down by now) and said (I am quoting verbatim): ‘What’s your problem?’

I stared at her in near-disbelief but managed to choke out my son’s name and the time of his appointment – which was now about 15 minutes overdue.

The harridan immediately said, ‘It’s just bad luck, you’ll have to wait, these two patients were here before you.’

I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Doctor’s running late,’ she said, then folded her arms and looked at me in a bizarrely and blatantly challenging way.

‘And you didn’t think to maybe phone me and tell me that?’ I said. ‘You’ve got my contact details right there in your book. You knew I had to fetch my daughter at 4.30 because I told you so this morning, when I called to make the appointment. And it didn’t cross your mind to just pick up the phone and let me know that the doctor’s running late?’

‘Don’t you be rude to me!’ shouted the receptionist.

I was absolutely astonished. I stood up, intending to leave, and said, ‘I can’t see what’s rude about asking you to phone me and tell me that the doctor’s running late. In fact, I think it’s rude of you not to have done so,’ then began walking towards the door.

But she just couldn’t let it go. ‘How dare you speak to me like that!’ she yelled.

Well, I’m sorry to say, I snapped. I stormed over to the reception desk, pushed my face right into hers, and screamed, ‘WHAT’S RUDE ABOUT ASKING YOU TO PHONE ME AND TELL ME THAT THE DOCTOR’S RUNNING LATE?!’ (Little bits of spit actually flew out of my mouth and landed on her nose.)

Then I marched out.

Still she didn’t drop it, and continued shouting after me as I walked down the path towards my car. My son (who’d discreetly left when I’d said, ‘I beg your pardon?' – he’s lived with me long enough to know the danger signs) was already sitting in the car, and I joined him there. ‘What happened?’ he asked.

I had an image of this ridiculous woman, tinpot general of the waiting room, with a bit of my spittle on her nose, and I burst out laughing. ‘Nothing really,’ I said. ‘I’ve just realised it’s time to find a new doctor.’

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meggie said...

O god, so familiar! Not recently though. Now we live in a rural area, most people know each other. Much nicer. I hope that cow on the reception gets her marching orders!

Juno said...

Bluddy hell, how rude is she? Good on you, Mur, for standing up to this sorry little ninny.

Not that I am in the least bit surprised. This 'I-am-king-of-the-castle' attitude is pervasive in South Africa. I don't mean to sound like an Afro-Pessimist, but, honestly, I am often astounded by the crappy, surly service I receive every day.

settledowndude said...

one of my little apendages once was whining for a toy gun, and I , thinking on my feet, said "but I dont like violence"
His reply, at volume was "but I LOVE violence"
Murial I admire your restraint with this sad little passive aggresive, but next time say to yourself"But I love violence!" and administer the corective snottie. Albeit a verbal one. Its very healing. The Doctor need one as well. Theraputic.