Saturday, June 5, 2010


I needed to speak with a medical specialist last week. I’d never met him and had no appointment. I just dropped into his office. The receptionist wasn’t at her desk. Soon a young woman passed by in the hallway. She smiled at me and waved.

“Hi. I’ll be with you in a second.”

She took her seat, introduced herself, and asked how she could help me. I explained that I just wanted to talk with the doc for a minute. She walked back to his office, returned, and said, “Sure. He’ll be right out.”

He emerged, we chatted, I got the info I needed, and I left.

Contrast this with an experience in another doctor’s office a couple of months ago, when I was sick. I called ahead and was told to just drop in. When I arrived at the desk, the young woman receptionist was on the phone. She offered no sign of recognition. After she finally hung up and did a little paperwork, she took notice of me.


“I need to see the doctor. I was told to come in.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Bronchitis. I might need to be on an antibiotic.”

“It’s probably viral,” she said. “When it’s viral, antibiotics don’t help.”

“Yeah, right. But I’d like to see the doctor anyway.”

Two very different receptions, right? The first felt welcoming, the second was as though I’d been caught trespassing.

Some doctors don’t appreciate the considerable influence their front desk can have. After all, it’s where patients, who are by definition suffering, first make medical contact. Being sick, they’re unusually sensitive and vulnerable, and commonly anxious and angry. They’re also hopeful, as they seek relief in any form. They’ll even accept the placebo effect.

That’s why I find it important, for example, to hold our cancer support group meetings in the hospital, which is itself a placebo. As an edifice dedicated to competent responses to sickness, one can begin to feel treated just by being in it.

Doctors, too, are placebos. Wearing a symbol of their craft—a stethoscope, a white coat—and radiating knowledgeable confidence, they tell us implicitly that we’ve entrusted our problem to good hands. Their offices, too, can serve the same function, but only if the docs consciously manage in that direction.

Too many medical offices simulate factories in which patients are considered interchangeable units in need of repair. That’s too bad, not only for the patients whose humanity is minimized, but for the employees, who, human themselves, yearn for more contact, but learned somewhere that the preferred “professional” style is detachment.

Nothing changes without new information. Our support group members continually advise one another to give feedback to their doctors--to praise them for the healing strokes they receive from the docs or their office staff, and to tell them honestly when contact is less than healing. If patients don’t communicate these feelings, nothing will change. And more humanity in the office doesn’t raise the overhead a dime.

1 comment:

  1. I worked in administration at a staff model HMO, and I always felt the two most important persons in the office were the check in person and the Medical Assistant. What if we appreciated, trained and reward them financially for the contribution they make to the over all patient experience, how much better treatment could be given with savings?