On Medicine and Being Late

Sometimes I feel like I have the best patients in the world. Especially when I’m late. “Don’t worry, doctor.” “That’s the way things go, doc.” That’s what I’m told. But I can’t stop feeling bad about any delay.

The truth is that delays are inevitable in healthcare, but that doesn’t mean lateness should be normalised.

A good doctor, a doctor who does the best he can, will always choose to spend a few more minutes with a patient if it means that he is giving him or her a higher quality treatment – even if it also means that those in the waiting room will have to wait a little longer.

Things take time. There are thirty minute jobs, there are one hour jobs, and there are hour-and-a-half jobs – and so on. Often, you’ll only be able to properly scope the time needed after starting.

In this respect, a delay can even be seen as a sign of quality – as a mark of the doctor who cares. Other times, the delay happens because of an unpredictable situation: an unwilling child, a wound that doesn’t stop bleeding, a stitch that doesn’t stay in place. It’s rare that a patient is delayed because the doctor felt like going out for coffee.

So I am grateful for how understanding my patients are. They realize that if I had to, I would also spend extra time with them, on their appointment.

Even so, I hate being late, and it’s something I always try to avoid. Because I have the notion that a delay doesn’t result in a localised effect – if I delay a person, I am stealing time from everyone who comes next. What’s more, I’m making these people late for their affairs, stealing time from those who are counting on them. Delays have a domino effect that reaches far more than those immediately involved.

Likewise, I am sympathetic to my patient’s delays. Life does not always work the way we want, and even with the best intentions, accidents happen. But when someone starts coming in late repeatedly, then I have to draw attention to it, not only for my sake but for the sake of the other patients who are delayed as a consequence.

In the end, common sense and tolerance are the principles I try to follow, and I see that most of my patients do so, too. And in the rare case where someone complains, I try not to take it personally, because we must never forget that the other people’s time is as valuable as ours.

This article appeared in its original form under the “Secrets of Oral Health” column of the newspaper “A Gazeta das Caldas.”