Waiting for the Doctor

Every year at the beginning of the tax season, our AARP Tax Aide outposts in the public libraries are mobbed. These free tax preparation service sites are first come, first served, which enables us to do far more tax returns in a day than if we took appointments. That’s because there is no way of knowing in advance how complex a person’s tax situation may be. (Our favorite taxpayer claim is “This will be simple.” Right. If it’s so simple, why couldn’t you do it yourself? Aha! Because it’s not simple at all.)

I’ve done tax returns—accurately—in as little as five minutes. This week I did one that took two hours, and it wasn’t even that complicated, just a ton of information from multiple sources that had to be correctly identified and input so it would correlate. Two hours. The usual appointment time at sites that take appointments, such as the senior center, is half an hour or forty-five minutes. Not long enough for the really detailed returns, and far too long for the simple ones. So you see why first-come first served makes sense, although we are not happy to see a crowd of people staring at us, waiting, for hours at a time. They look bored, tense, and miserable. They seldom read anything even though they are at the public library. Their kids, whom they sometimes must bring with them, are usually ready to climb the walls.

Yesterday I was in the reverse position, waiting in an eye doctor’s office with thirty-five other people. I’ve never visited this retina practice when it wasn’t exactly this crowded. On previous visits, the office staff has claimed that one of the doctors was on vacation. Yesterday I didn’t even bother to ask, because obviously this practice is run on the scarcity paradigm we use when doing taxes.

But here’s the difference. These doctors know what we’re here for, so they know in advance how much time and how many resources we’re likely to take up. And still they have us waiting for two hours before getting to even the first bit of an eye exam. They chronically underestimate how much time it takes to do their jobs.

I hate that we have to make people wait for hours for get their taxes done, but that mostly happens in early February when people are eager, not to say desperate, to get their thousands of dollars in Earned Income Credit. They don’t have to do it then, and they can choose other volunteer tax prep sites that take appointments so they wouldn’t have to wait at all. People coming to see doctors don’t have those choices. Unless the office staff tells us in advance that we’ll have to wait a while to be “fit in” for a rush appointment, we walk in blind, never knowing if we’ll find a sea of people in the waiting room, or nobody. But the doctors have to know. The staff has to know. Why don’t they call and warn people that the doctors are running late? Why not offer a later appointment time? During the two hours I waited yesterday, I had time to write this and another blog post, too. And chat with total strangers. And take a nap. And be bored. What a waste of my valuable time! And all for the two to three minutes that the specialist actually devoted to me, and the five to ten minutes that a technician gave me for an eye test a few minutes before that. A doctor might not know if he’s running thirty minutes late, but he certainly knows when he’s running two hours late. I asked him about it, and he said they actually worked on Sunday, too. So he’s working very long hours, giving his expertise to many more patients than is sane. And meanwhile, we’re feeling abused in the waiting room. There’s a huge disconnect occurring.

I have to wonder if this situation is good for either side. Does a doctor overworking actually require the abuse of patients? Does the anger we patients feel harm the delivery of medical advice or treatment? At some point, the doctors have to catch up on their two hours wait time—or do they ever? And if not, why are they allowing their staff to make so many appointments? Do they have a god complex and feel they must do it all rather than refer people to other medical groups? From talking to the staff, I could tell that they get some pretty unhappy comments from patients, but they feel helpless to deal with it. The doctors call the shots, after all, not the office staff or the techs. After waiting for over two hours to see a doctor for three minutes, I feel rushed and angry, and reluctant to put myself through this kind of experience again. Even for the sake of my eyesight. Am I also reluctant to follow the doctor’s suggestions? Likely. Am I considering switching doctors? Possibly, although I believe this is a fine doctor who truly knows his stuff. He only needs a couple of minutes to examine my eyes and identify my issues. So why do I need to wait two hours for my audience with the Great One?

I’m sure that people waiting at the tax prep spots experience the same frustrations I am citing. But they can walk out at any time, come in during any hours we’re open, do their taxes themselves, utilize free online e-filing, and more. I can’t do my own eye exams, and that’s the crunch issue.

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