While We Wait

It started with my hands.

There wasn’t a moment of the day or night without pain. My life was reduced to transitioning from angry, hostile monster to sobbing, incoherent mess.

It was clearly no way to live and I was 42 years old.

In my case, the very last thing my physician tried was a test to see if I had rheumatoid arthritis. That is, after months of negative and inconclusive testing and, always, that uncertainty and pain. When I was finally referred to a rheumatologist I remember the intense relief: finally … I had some answer as to what was wrong with me.

That was before I realized it would be another 29 weeks – or more than 200 days – before I would see the rheumatologist and another couple weeks waiting on the additional blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

I waited because what else was I to do?

It would be another three weeks after formal diagnosis by my rheumatologist before the inflammation, and therefore the pain, would be reduced enough that I could think straight again.

I’m one of the lucky ones – wait time to see a rheumatologist is now at over 2 years.

So maybe you can understand why all the hullabaloo about wait times always makes me smile. It’s not a happy one by any means. On the contrary, it is my acknowledgment and understanding as to how brutal waiting is on every facet of our lives, because, believe me, I get it.

From the person anxiously watching the clock wondering if their parking will run out before they are seen to the person wondering if their co-workers and boss will understand that they are late; from the person juggling three active children in an overfilled waiting room to the person wondering if they will have time to make dinner when they get home before soccer, ballet and piano lessons; from the person wondering if this test will finally determine what is wrong with them to the person wondering if they are going to catch anything from the clearly sick people around them.

These are all legitimate factors when we have to wait. But, from my perspective, dealing with long wait times is only part of the solution. What happens while we are waiting is just as important.

Case in point: One of the waiting rooms I was in recently had a screen that not only posted a patient’s first name and the number of minutes until they would be seen, but was updated so if there was a change, a patient would be informed immediately.

What a simple solution to the “how much longer?” situation that not only addresses patients’ queries and concerns, but it has to affect the bottom line in terms of reducing the time of staff answering this question!

Let’s be honest, we all check before we resign ourselves to participating in the line that goes on for who knows how long. It’s one of the reasons why Appletree’s online app showing available doctors, locations, and wait times is so successful.

It’s also one of the reasons why booking online for our appointments makes sense: we don’t have to wait for staff to be available to take our call. Conversely, that same staff member’s time is reserved for some other task.

So where am I going with all this talk about waiting? I’ll sum it up with three points.

First, we need a discussion about necessary versus unnecessary waiting; between what we can and will accept versus what is bordering on immoral or inhuman.

Second, it makes sense that all stakeholders be involved in figuring out how to deal with waiting. This includes objective and critical evaluation as to the success of any program or process put into place.

Which brings me to my third point: I think I speak for many people when I say I don’t mind waiting for something if at the end it is worth the wait. Taking a look at my journey of being diagnosed I have to say I have mixed feelings. Knowing what was wrong with me gave me intense relief, especially when I had to work hard at getting taken seriously all those months. However, I don’t believe I was ever really heard.

If I had to give a single piece of advice based on my experience it would be this: listen. I mean, really, listen to the patient and don’t assume you heard unless the patient tells you that you got it right. I didn’t care what was wrong with me so much as I wanted and needed the pain to stop. Not only would the wait have been far less of an ordeal had I been heard, I likely would have been able to hear what was being said to me. I don’t believe I was being obstinate … I simply couldn’t hear past the pain.

Here’s the thing: fixing wait times is a good thing and we should do it, but it’s too big for one person to solve … but hearing what a patient needs at that very moment is doable. In doing so, we change the conversation to be about the waiting experience instead of wait times.

It would have made the wait worthwhile to me.

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