How long should you have to wait for a doctor?

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Waiting to see a doctor is bad enough, but “the real horrors are the specialists… their egos outpace even the radio shock jocks’, their arrogance grows positively Trumpian”, says “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN.

HOW long do you have to spend in a Canberra doctor’s waiting room before you can expect a smile and an apologetic: “Sorry for the wait. It’s been a madhouse here today”? 

Twenty minutes? An hour? A fortnight? 

How about… forever?

GPs aren’t so bad. I’ve enjoyed three quite splendid members of the tribe; none better than my current chap. But I’ve also been through a couple of shockers, especially when they’ve sold their practice and joined a group. Suddenly you’re in a waiting room as big as a theatre, watching endlessly as they pop out and pick someone else from the crowd.

But the real horrors are the specialists; and in an ageing community like ours they’re just impossible. Older people are more malleable than younger ones; more worried about their future; more grateful for the attention. So the specialists’ egos outpace even the radio shock jocks’, their arrogance grows positively Trumpian. 

The other day, for example, my GP gave me a referral to a specialist for an initial consultation. The issue wasn’t life-threatening, just one of those things that you “keep an eye on” in case it might be a worry down the track. 

Next day the receptionist called. “Doctor has a vacancy at 1pm Friday,” she said. “Okay,” I responded, “I’ll see you then,” and returned to the computer where I was running hard to meet a deadline for my new book.

Then came the smoke which, for a bloke with a long-term respiratory problem, suddenly meant running around town to secure an air purifier and a daily battle to do my outdoor exercise indoors while coughing and wheezing and typing like mad to meet the deadline… which I still hadn’t reached by 12.30pm Friday when I had to put the writing aside and set out for the surgery.

Made it in good time too, then waited… and waited… while the appointment passed and the next person was called. I tried to compose the missing elements of the final chapter in my head, but the words kept slipping away… then, just when I thought it had to be my turn, another couple were called… Ahh!

Finally, my name was cooed from some unseen place. When I reached the area, the specialist was inside his office, offering a quick handshake and sitting behind his big desk. That’s when I said the unsayable: “My appointment was for 1 o’clock.”

“So?” he responded. 

“It’s now one forty-two.”

From my viewpoint, it meant I’d lost all the time since leaving home – one precious hour and twelve golden minutes. 

And if he’d said: “Sorry for the wait, it’s been a madhouse here today”, I’d have happily given a tight smile and moved right along into the consultation.

But no. “So what?” he said. 

“Other people have things to do as well,” I said. 

Then came a back and forth between us, in which he said: “I’ve been dealing with sick people… patients”. And ended with him suggesting I go elsewhere. I was more than happy to comply. 

As I walked to the lift I couldn’t help thinking of that word, “patients”. Maybe that’s where we all went wrong; they hear “patients” and they think “patience”, like the airlines thanking us for something that ran out hours (or years) ago. Or maybe they’ve forgotten that they’re not gods at all, but really well-paid service providers who sometimes delay death a little, and occasionally a lot; and that our time – and even our work – is precious, too.

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  1. Robert Macklin is quite right to recognise that medical specialists are GODS. However, his specialist was still one of the minor ones wasting his time by waiting only 1 hour and 12 minutes before being granting an audience (How long should you have to wait for a doctor -February 25, 2020). I used to take my old mother-in-law quite often to a specialist and we waited up to 5 hours and 35 minutes, try to beat that one, Robert!

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