Mine, specifically. A month ago, I decided to do a full medical examination in Bangkok. A well-known Thai hospital was having a special deal, so I thought, why not? It made sense to get checked out. We spend loads of time in slums and dumps and other strange places, who knew what weird parasites I might have picked up?
As it turned out, I had no parasites. But the doctor discovered some strange calcifications in my right breast. “I cannot rule out cancer,” he said and recommended a biopsy. But we had to leave Bangkok the following day, and so back in Singapore, I found myself queuing up at a polyclinic, waiting my turn for a doctor to refer me to a specialist in a public hospital.
I’ve always had private healthcare. Working overseas gave me that privilege. But this time round, because I was home in Singapore, I figured I should put my tax dollars to good use, and go public instead.
Healthcare where I come from is exceptionally good. We have world-class facilities and some of the best doctors in the region. But I’ve discovered in the long weeks leading up to my biopsy that the system isn’t designed to sooth the anxious patient. Until you see the doctor, you are a number, a statistic standing in line. The counter assistants – the people hired to walk you through the admin – are so harried, they barely have time to answer your questions.
On my first visit to the polyclinic, I found myself arguing with the booking clerk. Three doctors (the specialist in Bangkok, my own GP, plus the one I saw at the polyclinic) had told me I needed a biopsy ASAP. It was highlighted in the medical report I handed her. But the clerk was on the phone and barely looked at it, or me. Asked if she could try a few hospitals to find out which ones had earlier slots, she informed me that since I chose to “be subsidized” I would just have to wait. For at least two months.
“But but but, look, this is what three doctors said,“ I squealed. “They said ASAP.”
“I’m very busy, sit down and I’ll call your name when I have an appointment date.”
I sat and seethed for a good half-hour before she informed me that I would get to see a specialist the following week. “Yours is an urgent case,” she said. I was glad she finally bothered to review my file. But why did she not listen right from the start? I could have saved her some time. Why the rudeness?
I think the answer lies not in their lack of empathy, but in the fact that these healthcare administrators see so many sick people everyday. They’re desensitized. At the General Hospital, I had a similar experience. The breast doctor thought I needed a mammotome. But because I was there on a day when the specialist at the radiology department wasn’t around, the admin clerk couldn’t get my mammogram slides verified. She kept my file and told me she’d call again to confirm my next appointment. I went home and she rang a couple of days later to say the doctor was still away. This was followed by a week-and-a-half of silence.
During that time, I tried to keep calm. But on the 9th day, I lost it, rang up the hospital, and ended up yelling at the clerk handling my case. That same afternoon, I made arrangements to see a private doctor and headed to the General Hospital to pick up my file. It was only then that they told me I could have my biopsy the following week. They apologized for the delay. Seemed genuinely sorry. I felt bad about losing my temper.
I understand that in the grand scheme of things, my little biopsy was probably not as important as say, emergency surgery for the guy with the heart attack, or the kid with the fractured skull. But health issues, no matter how minor, can be intensely stressful to the person affected. So, to the good people manning the admin desks in healthcare facilities, here’s a revelation:
We do not, repeat, DO NOT like walking into a polyclinic/hospital/radiology lab asking to have our boobs/skull/brains/back/liver/heart/colon/whatever examined. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing and in some instances, nerve-wracking. We would rather not trouble you, yell at you, or ask you for favours. We understand you have plenty to do. But understand this, if YOU were the one seeking medical care, wouldn’t you want to be treated like a human being too?
To be fair, once past admin, the nurses and doctor at the hospital were superb. Extremely kind, and exceptionally empathetic. A mammotome, in case you don’t know, is basically a mammogram AND biopsy at the same time. It is extremely uncomfortable. Kinda like having your boobs squashed between a sandwich-maker, while someone yanks bits of flesh out of you. It is also not pretty – lots of blood.
Which is why I am grateful the nurses and doctor took care to talk me through the process, telling me in advance if something was going to hurt, and reminding me several times to alert them if I was in pain. They were exactly the kind of healthcare practitioners you’d expect from a world-class facility.
Now, if only the admin assistants would follow their lead.