Monday, June 13, 2005

Do people have to fit into processes - or vice versa?

I've got a sore throat. I've had it for a week, and it isn't getting any better. But up to today, I haven't been near a doctor's surgery for about six years.

As you can see, we're building towards a connection. That connection comes from the fact that today I did walk into my doctor's surgery - and into a mis-communication loop that led to both me and the person I was attempting to book an appointment with to be less than satisfied with the exchange.

Now here's the situation. I moved into the area around 10 months ago, and my wife registered me with my new doctor. And that was it: until today.

So I walked through the door and up to the desk of an empty surgery. That's empty other than the two receptionists sat behind the desk busying themselves with their papers. I smiled. One briefly raised her eyes from her papers and then carried on what she was doing. It was a good 30-45 seconds before she acknowledged my presence. That put me on edge a bit.

"Hello," I said, "I'd like to make an appointment to see a doctor, I'm registered with Dr. xxxx."

"Is it an emergency?" the receptionist replied. "I don't know, I said. That's why I'd like to see a doctor." "Well, is it an emergency or can it wait?" she replied, immediately sweeping back round the loop from which no good could emerge.

"I don't know," I said again. "I haven't been to a doctor's for six years, and it's bothering me sufficiently to come down here now."

"Well I can only book you in if it's an emergency, " she continued, and I'm pretty sure she folded her arms at that point.

"Mrs. Txxxxx," I countered. "I'm not medically qualified and unless you are, I don't think we can come to that diagnosis - and anyway, I don't want to be talking about my symptoms out here. When can I get to see a doctor?"

"If you think it's an emergency, I can book you in to see Dr. Jxxxx at 6pm, after surgery's finished."

She said it in such a condescending manner that I was minded to stick a large medical dictionary up her nose. But at that moment I saw a sign behind the counter. It read: 'Since we introduced our new booking procedure, most patients have welcomed the new process. Some, however, have been extremely rude to our staff. This is not helpful and could necessitate us removing you from your doctor's lists.'

Now no-one has actually explained to me what the booking procedure was, but a light was going on that I probably wasn't fitting into their procedure. So I asked to see the Practice Manager.

Mrs T got on the phone: "Have you got time to see Mark Shanahan?" (no mister for me!). "He's unhappy with the booking procedure."

Frankly, I wasn't unhappy with the booking procedure. I was unhappy with the 'customer service' I'd received when trying to make my first ever booking at the surgery.

So I trucked upstairs to see Mrs. P. I retold her my experience and she explained that the booking procedure was to phone in and make an appointment on the day you feel ill - and that all today's scheduled appointments were full. After that, it was emergencies only and that they didn't take bookings for future days. Also, they were two doctors down and generally short staffed in terms of medical care.

It was an enlightening 10 minute visit to the surgery that could have taken less than two.
The lesson I took out was that Mrs. T and I got into the wrong communication loop through her expecting me to know the system, and through me expecting to be treated as an individual, not a component in a process.

Public servants like Mrs. T need to remember that they're dealing with individuals: people with different levels of need and understanding. Assuming knowledge is a dangerous thing - but can be overcome very easily by asking just a couple of establishing questions first. And the first question should never be....."Is it an emergency?"

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