Last night my mobile phone rang. To my utter astonishment the display showed it was a call from my doctor’s surgery. Wow, I thought, we’re getting somewhere, my GP is calling me. Today I want to write about how wrong I was.
So, as the phone was ringing, I was thinking that I was getting somewhere. My GP, knowing how frustrated and worried I was, decided to phone me and (briefly) discuss the results of the blood tests which he ordered. I felt particularly gratified, as he had made very sure that I knew how reluctant he had been to order them (I did tell him in a few frank words what I thought about it). Gosh, how disappointed I was to hear the voice of the receptionist. She phoned to arrange a routine appointment for me.
Before I go on, let me comment on ‘routine appointment’. This was the first phone call from the doctor’s surgery in the 25 years I have lived in the UK. And the phone call was about a ‘routine appointment’? I mean – for pity’s sake, do you really think that if you say ‘routine’, I will immediately forget about the fact that you had never ever phoned me to arrange an appointment. Do you really believe in this wondrous power of the language which through one word will put my mind at rest? To be completely honest, on hearing the word ‘routine’, the only thing I thought was that someone thinks me a complete idiot who will be manipulated by one word. I don’t really expect you to respect me, doctor, but please, don’t show me how much a fool you take me for.
Consider this, as you see people up in arms about one word or another, because ‘language matters’. Sigh.
Well, as I was saying to the receptionist that clearly it was not routine because she was phoning me, I regretted it. After all, it had nothing to do with her, she was probably just following instructions. Incidentally, she understood it immediately, as she chuckled.
Anyway, here is the linguistic bit – the post is not another rant. It’s about linguistics, as the whole situation is about three communication processes, which I will describe in turn.
1. The first process of communication is between the receptionist trying to make an appointment for me and me. There are two things about it. First, she was quite unfazed by telling me that the doctor was now on holiday and would see me late next week. It had not even occurred to her that I might be unavailable (like on holiday….). She basically said, the doctor was available late next week. When I said, I couldn’t make it, she punished me by suggesting the middle of January. Yes, you refuse an appointment at your peril.
The second aspect of this exchange was that it was gate-keeping. I was to make an appointment, but she held all the cards. As I was suggesting options, it was like hitting the wall.
But then I changed the tactics. I said something like: “Do you really think I will be waiting for 3-4 weeks worried sick about the results?” Astonishingly, this appeal to humanity worked and I got an appointment for tomorrow. It’s with a different doctor, but at least, so she said, he will tell me more. Wow…. It pays to be a linguist aware of communication tactics.
2. The second communication process is the one the receptionist was not prepared to have with me. She refused to engage in any communication about why the appointment was needed. A wall.
If you might think this is because the receptionist is not a healthcare professional, I’ll tell you: don’t be silly. You cannot devolve this kind of communication because that would take the magic away from the doctor. And there are probably laws to make sure it stays that way.
3. The third communication process is the one the phone call was all about. It’s the communication process between me and the doctor. It’s what I want to have, but I cannot, because the doctor is on holiday and I need to wait until he comes back. It’s the communication process I have no access to, as it is a privilege I need to access.
All those of you who think I am exaggerating, think about this. A doctor, through his receptionist, is telling me he needs to talk me. The communication with the receptionist is extraordinary – first time in 25 years. This constructs communication with the doctor extremely important. Yet, I cannot simply go and talk to the doctor. I need to fight for it, use tactics, as the receptionist declines to make an appointment with the doctor for me. And remember, the moment I said I could not make the appointment when the doctor asked, it was pushed back by about 3 weeks. Really??
So, that’s the story of communicating with a doctor. Here are a couple of comments. First, yes, I worry. Probably unnecessarily, yet, I do worry. The last 24 hours or so, I have been thinking about it just about all the time. My mind entertains the worst of scenarios, including illnesses suggesting death in the near future. Yet, no one cares. Bloody hell, it seems, as the doctor instructed the receptionist to phone me, he probably didn’t give another thought to what this phone call would do to me. After all, he did say ‘routine’.
Second, as I talked to the receptionist, she was very good at deflecting my attempts to breach the wall of no-access. I didn’t give up, I changed tactics. I can’t help thinking that I am fairly good with words, very good with words, and still at the beginning I was getting nowhere Think about all those patients who are not so ‘good with words’ who will be scared to say a word, who will simply wait worrying every day….
Third, just imagine what difference it would have made if the doctor had decided to phone himself. Yes, maybe the demi-god (or is it god?) would do the menial task of picking up the receiver (how absolutely awful!), spending 5 additional minutes talking to me, briefly explaining what it was all about. It doesn’t bear thinking, does it? To all those who will tell me that the doctor has not got the time, I say: I don’t care. I really don’t. Make the time. Alternatively, have me phoned in a way that doesn’t exacerbate how I feel. At the moment this is what you did. Moreover, you will probably feel pretty happy with yourself, because you actually did have the receptionist phone me. It doesn’t even occur to you that healthcare starts with the reception desk.
As I write this, I keep wondering. For so many years, we’ve been talking about two worlds, that of the patient and that of medicine. It’s been so long, you would think medics got it. It seems not. It seems, it is as difficult as ever to look through my eyes. We not only live in different worlds, we live in separate universes. You can’t even begin to think the way I do.
And, finally, I don’t think, you have given any thought to one other thing: to what it would do to our relationship. Yes, you always win, but I still can change my doctor. Regrettably, I have started thinking about it.