This is the first time I'm seeing Mrs. Johnson in my medical office. I knock on the door, wait for her to tell me I can come in to the exam room, and then walk in with a smile on my face that she can't see because of the mask I'm wearing to protect against Covid-19 transmission. We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, and then she tells me why she's transferring her care to me.
"It's just that my last doctor was always late! No matter how early I got to my appointments, I always had to wait at least half an hour. My friend said she came to see you last week, and there wasn't any wait, so I'm here so I won't ever have to wait to see my doctor again!"
I desperately wish that were true.
Mrs. Johnson isn't a real patient of mine, but I've heard a variation on this theme many, many times. Sometimes, the variation is that a patient is berating me as I walk into a room 45 minutes late.
I understand the frustration. I get irritated if I have to wait 15 minutes to have my oil changed; I can understand how much more frustrating it must be to wait to talk about something as vital as your health care. During medical school, I had to have a surgery to remove my gallbladder, and even as someone "in the know," I had a miserably frustrating two hours in a waiting room when I went to see the surgeon for my postoperative follow-up appointment.
I wish I could promise patients that I would never be late again, but it's an impossible promise to keep. There will always be the emergency phone calls just before I'm supposed to walk into a room. Once, it was a suicidal patient who I needed to keep on the phone until emergency services could arrive. Another time, it was the family member of a patient who had recently been placed on hospice and who was having trouble breathing, turning blue right in front of the family member's eyes.
Other times, I'm late because I've been trying to track down previous medical records or laboratory results so that I had a clear idea of what was going on before I walked into a room. I try to let a patient know if I'm doing this, but it isn't always possible.
Sometimes, I'm late because I've seen a full schedule of patients, one after the other, and I'm sitting in my office for five minutes trying not to be overwhelmed, taking deep breaths and drinking a cup of lukewarm green tea and reminding myself that all I can do is my best.
So much of medical training comes down to triage, to prioriti-zation. If I look at my schedule and see that one patient just got out of the hospital after having a massive myocardial infarction (heart attack), I am going to spend however long it takes in the room with that patient to make sure they are on the road to recovery — even if that means I'll be late to the next appointment.
I can't make those situations go away, but I can promise that when each of my patients needs me to take that extra amount of time with them, I will do it. Almost certainly, your primary care physician would make the same promise to you, and maybe knowing that will help ease the frustration next time you have to wait to see your doctor.
Joshua Potter, D.O., is a physician with Stony Brook Southampton Hospital's Meeting House Lane Medical Practice who specializes in family and neuromusculoskeletal medicine. He oversees the practice's Shelter Island office. Opinions expressed in this column are his personal and professional views and not necessarily those of his employer.