Cancer patients deserve respect, courtesy and a voice in their treatment


Every now and then I have to jump on my soapbox and say my article: Cancer patients don’t have to put up with poor customer service or simple bad manners. We do not have to accept being reduced to a number in the waiting room or a treatment receptacle. We are part of our healthcare team and as such we deserve respect and a voice.

What caused this? Recently, I went to my oncology clinic for an appointment with the oncologist who took over my care after my longtime doctor retired. I had to take a number and wait for my number to be called for registration. The usual. When I approached the receptionist, I said “Hello”. Without looking up, she said, “Date of birth. “

It might not bother others, but it’s a huge pet peeve for me. I now have appointments with an oncologist, clinical trial oncologist, neurologist, podiatrist, cardiologist, primary care physician, and dermatologist. This oncology clinic is the only place where I experience this lack of simple civility. It’s a huge clinic, they are busy, overworked and understaffed. I understand all of this. Although she might have helped 50 patients before I went to the counter, it was my first experience that day with her. I am used to this area so I often grit my teeth and put up with it. Not this time. Other patients may enter the clinic for the first time frightened, nervous and anxious about a life-threatening cancer diagnosis and the treatment that comes with it. They need TLC, not a cold shoulder. First patient or 20th patient online.

My neurology clinic is bigger and busier. The receptionists always greet me with kindness. The medical assistants show up when they bring me back for the vital signs. They let me know if any delays are to be expected. They are nice. Same at the clinical trials clinic.

So what to do? I replied “Hello, my name is Kelly Irvin” followed by my date of birth. She said she couldn’t hear me, so I repeated the whole message. I wasn’t rude or loud, just firm. His tone calmed down a bit after that. Maybe others don’t see this as a big deal, but for those of us who spend two, three or more days a week in clinics like this, simple jokes can make such a difference.

Sometimes assertiveness is required. The medical assistant at the clinic informed me that it had been a year since I last saw this oncologist for a head-to-toe physical exam requiring complete undressing. I explained that I had seen his colleague during this time and had never had to do so before. She insisted that this was standard protocol. I asked to speak to the doctor first to confirm. She did and the exam question never came up again. A patient with less experience might have felt uncertain about questioning the “protocol”. I am disabled so undressing and dressing is difficult and takes time. I didn’t bring my assistive devices because my doctor hasn’t done a pelvic exam since I recovered from my volume reduction surgery. Nothing to see there, folks.

After waiting in the reception area, waiting for the lab results, and then waiting to see my doctor, I was again directed to the waiting room to schedule a return visit. It was a new one. I had brought my lunch, thank goodness so it wasn’t being hungry that made me go back to the planning area after 15 minutes. A young woman informed me that the calendars “weren’t there”, but that she could take care of me. It was lunch time so I guess they were at lunch. God knows they have to eat, but not all at the same time. Fortunately, this woman recognized me. She took the five minutes necessary to schedule the meeting and allow me to continue my little way.

I’ve seen family and friends lament how frustrated they are with wait times, in particular, but also the lack of feedback on test results, the lack of recall after scans, canceled or postponed appointments, etc. My advice is to speak for yourself. Defend yourself. Health care is not something made for you. You participate in it. You are part of the team. If your team lets you down, say so. If they’re not doing better, consider researching healthcare providers who include you in the conversation.

My doctor asked me what I needed from him while I was in clinical trials. He listened to me and gave me good advice and we made a plan to move forward. He gave me an ovarian cancer awareness bracelet. Then he gave me something worth his weight in gold: his cell phone number. Not all doctors will. And I would never abuse it. But his confidence that I know when to use it tells me we’re on the same team.

For that, I will take up all the challenges of this clinic. But I also won’t stop climbing into my soapbox urging healthcare providers to make customer service a top priority for patients already going through hell. They don’t need to be treated like nameless numbers.

Get off the soapbox, for now.

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