OP-ED

Do Doctors Deserve Mercy?

This past week a video went viral when a woman complained about the lengthy wait time at a clinic.  On video, we see the physician asks if the patient still wants to be seen.  The patient declines to be seen, yet complains patients should be informed they will not be seen in a timely manner.  The frustrated physician replies, “Then fine…Get the hell out. Get your money and get the hell out.”  While we do not witness events leading up to the argument between doctor and patient, we do know staff at the front desk called the police due to threats made by the patient to others. 

Based on the statement released by Peter Gallogly, MD, he is a humble, thoughtful, and compassionate physician who was very concerned for the safety of his staff, which he considers “family.”  Physicians like Dr. Gallogly do their best to serve patients, ease their suffering, and avoid losing ourselves to burnout at the same time. Every human being deserves our compassion, kindness, and clemency.  Patients and physicians must accommodate each other when possible.

Do physicians actually deserve our mercy when necessary?  Yes, they do.  I should know.  The kindness shown to me by my patients over the past month has been unparalleled, leaving this physician thankful beyond words. 

My father has been a practicing pediatrician in our community for 47 years.  As I type these words, he is dying in a hospital bed.  We have worked side by side for the last 16 years.  It is difficult to make it through the day, desperately hoping to hear his voice one last time in the clinic hallway.  He was carrying a full patient load before an unexpected cardiac arrest ended his career.  The patient load doubled overnight; it is a burden I am carrying alone.

Many families have brought their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to us for more than 40 years.   We have seen them through the darkest moments of their lives, at their most vulnerable, and brought them into the light.  Now, our patients must guide me through unimaginable heartache and grief. 

Long wait times can be terribly frustrating.  Punctuality has long been a personal obsession. Lately, I have been unable to keep up; patients with appointments are waiting more than two hours to be seen.  Every new encounter begins with an apology for tardiness followed by an update on the condition of my father.  Most families are aware of my overwhelming task — running a practice built for two when I am but one physician.  Not a single parent or child has complained, yelled, accosted, or threatened.  Each family has shown me desperately needed mercy. 

Over the last twenty-one days, patients have provided 15 home-cooked meals.  Some have assisted by car-pooling my children or taking care of them when my presence at a last minute hospital care coordination meeting was required.  Others have simply offered a helping hand, by filing charts, running errands, or landscaping the grounds.  This is the physician-patient relationship as it was meant to be, simple, beautiful, and perfect. 

Yesterday, after apologizing yet again, a mother reassured me she would wait as long as it took to have her child seen, hugged me tightly, told me to take a deep breath, and offered me her chair to rest.  She reminded me to take care of myself.  In the next room was a grandmother who has been patronizing our practice since 1977, when I was barely three years old.  She offered billing services free of charge and emphasized how grateful she was for the loving care provided for two generations to her family. 

The clinic my father established is a place where mutual admiration between physician and patient has existed seamlessly for a half century.  Magic happens when patients walk through our doors.  The next time your physician is running late, consider the challenges they might have faced that day.  Accommodating their delay will be treasured more than you can possibly imagine.

Medicine is not a hospitality industry.  Patients are not customers and physicians are not restaurant wait staff.  We gave up our youth to become educated, skilled, and compassionate.  Saving the life of human beings is not equivalent to ordering a hamburger and having it served your way.  Physicians genuinely work hard to serve patients at their most desperate hour.  Remember, we are also human beings, who unequivocally need and deserve your mercy.      

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8 replies »

  1. Very well-written. Thanks for sharing an intimate story and describing one way to be a “better” healthcare consumer. I feel the hamburger analogy is slightly out of place, though. Hospitality and mercy should be matters of principle, not profession. I concur that receiving untimely healthcare is very different from receiving a bad hamburger, but both doctors and restaurant waitstaff deserve mercy when things go awry. Shit happens. Let’s all be kind to one another.

  2. I would like to know how we can still have a long term relationship with one doctor or practice when our health care changes so drastically with the Affordable Healthcare Plan.
    We have to change plans and doctors each year.

  3. I think most patients know or at least should know that lots of things can happen to put doctors behind schedule. Emergencies happen. Some appointments take longer than expected. It comes with the territory. Also, anyone, doctors and patients, can just have a bad day once in a while.

    However, if the doctor is running really late, it would be helpful if the person at the front desk could give a time estimate of how far behind he or she is. Maybe the patient would like to go get a cup of coffee or take a walk or run a quick errand. With iPhones in widespread use now, a simple text message from the front desk that the remaining wait time is down to no more than 30 minutes would give patients time to get back to the waiting room in case they left.

    I’ve had doctors who are almost always on time. In fact, sometimes I arrive a half hour early so I can read the rest of my newspaper and wind up being called in early. At the other extreme, I had one doctor who seems to take pride in running chronically late. I book the first appointment in the morning for a colonoscopy six weeks in advance and if he shows up an hour after the appointment is scheduled for, that’s par for the course for him but at least I was mentally ready for it after the first couple of times. For a consult, I could call his office and find out how far behind he is and then come in later than my scheduled appointment time.

    One thing that rightly bugs patients is doctors who deliberately overbook their schedule which often results in significant wait times to be seen. Many of us perceive such practice as a total lack of respect for the value of our time. That’s annoying to say the least.

  4. Totally agree. Don’t know the details of this situation, but so often you get a patient who is just a total A-hole and after a while you just can’t be nice anymore. Let me be clear, some patients are under stress, some have mental illness. I think we all get that and we all take a lot of verbal (and physical abuse) from those patients. Part of the job. However, that person who is just a jerk, they don’t all suddenly turn nice when they get to the hospital. If that is the case, then I hope this guy doesn’t suffer any consequences, though I do hope someone coaches him on how to handle this so it looks better next time.

    Good luck with your father and with the work. Hope you are better at letting people help you than I am. Actually, I think many of us docs aren’t that good at letting others help us.

    Steve

  5. Dr. Nelson, there are definitely days that have been tremendously difficult. Part of reason for writing this piece is that I have realized how fulfilling the physician-patient relationship can be, for both people. Our patients are helping to make this grief tolerable. I am grateful I have them and their wonderful stories about my dad from before I was born.

  6. The daily grind must be almost unbearable, given the emptiness left by losing your Father’s presence.

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