The Very Public Doctor’s Waiting Room

‘When was the last time you peed, Mr Hartle?’

The question nearly hits me for six. I shake my head and gingerly reach over the counter for the little plastic cup proffered by the nurse and follow her directions into the toilet.

I get that if you’re visiting a medical practitioner, especially for the first time, you might have to answer strange questions or follow unusual instructions from front desk staff to facilitate the consultation and save unnecessary time inside the doctor’s consulting room.

Most of the time the questions are pretty innocuous, like at the optometrist’s, where I’m most likely to be asked if I’m currently wearing my contact lenses. At the pathologist’s when I’m having a blood sugar test, I always expect to be asked if I’ve eaten anything in the last six hours.

Occasionally, the questions from a receptionist can be quite deeply probing about intimate details of our medical history. I understand the reasoning for that too, but I do wonder: Can’t it be done in a way that is less cringe-worthy and certainly not in a roomful of patients, or more sensitive to the individual’s preference for privacy?

Doctors’ rooms really can be challenging if you’re concerned about confidentiality issues. And it’s worse when you’re not physically present but the world and its dog gets to know about your condition.

A receptionist might telephone a patient with the result of a test that’s just come in; or call ahead to the rooms of another medical professional to schedule a further consultation with said patient.

All these various communications might be replete with the patient’s personal details such as identity and medical aid numbers, address and telephone contacts, and the date and time of your last trip to the urinal for a pee.

Once you’ve been examined in a doctor’s consulting room and if there’s an issue with the account, you’ll be referred to the accounts desk, a little window to the side of the reception area. The accounts clerk will inform you and everybody else that she requires a co-payment for the consultation because you basically have the worst medical aid ever and it’s unreasonable of you to expect their practice to deal with such nonsense (at least that’s what you gather from the tone in the clerk’s voice).

I once witnessed a truly inappropriate, demeaning, scene play out in a waiting room after a doctor brought a patient – with whom he had been consulting in his rooms – to the reception desk. He instructed his receptionist to explain in English his diagnosis and proposed treatment. This had to be done very “S-L-O-W-W-W-A-L-E-E” – because, I presume, the patient was an isiXhosa speaker and, of course, the English rule states that speaking English slowly guarantees that your non-English listener will immediately understand completely.

Seemingly, this doctor could not trust that his own rushed communication with the patient would be sufficient. Apparently, also, it was not possible to have on his staff someone conversant in isiXhosa who could assist him with the essential patient interaction IN THE CONSULTING ROOM, even though the practice seemed to have a reasonable number of isiXhosa first language patients, justifying the investment in that service.

The Very Public Doctor’s Waiting Room

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