Eyes smiling, face beaming, the porter rose from his stool to greet arrivals at the cancer centre, each nervously hesitant, staying close to a supporting loved one. With the confidence of a man who enjoyed being good at his job, he paused for those needing directions, reassured us that we were in the right place for our appointment, and then boomed: “Welcome everyone, and good luck to you all today.”
Good start. After that, we didn’t mind inconveniences like waiting for the single working elevator and felt better about whatever unknowns were ahead. The moment was still fresh when we got to the sixth floor. There, we faced a receptionist unable to switch her gaze from a computer to address us. Detached with jaded eyes fixed elsewhere, her outstretched arm dispatched us to an adjacent touch screen to register. We obeyed but the system insisted on a five-digit address code. Bad enough to be labelled ‘international’ as code for not having acceptable insurance, but not having a zip code was a new stigma. Before we could explain, Miss No-Eye-Contact was on the phone staring at some distant point behind us, then back to her screen with a facial expression that said: “Can’t you see! I’m busy.” Bristling a little, I blurted out my son’s details to demand attention. Without the slightest shift in posture, she confirmed our existence in the system with a few flicks of her keyboard. Progress. Then she left us with the unsettling comment: “Hmm, that’s interesting…take a seat and wait while I check with Accounts.” This is not what patients want to hear as they contemplate the prospect of major surgery. No one wants to be that kind of interesting.
Joe shot a warning glance at me “Dad…don’t be rude with this lady. Don’t lose it!”
Lose it! After 8 months of continual worry and stress trying to steer my son through the complexities and decision-making of a young man’s cancer treatment, I was determined not to ‘lose it’. We were overseas in a different healthcare system for a high stakes operation. They were now in charge and I would just have to play it their way. After all, I wasn’t the patient. I was supposed to be the support. So I stayed quiet. Then, the silence was broken, delightfully so, it seemed to me, when an old woman behind us flatly refused to have anything to do with self-registration. Dismissing the technology with an impatient wave of her hand, she snapped at no one in particular in a brash accent: “I’m not gonna do it, I can’t be bothered with that.”
Miss No-Eye-Contact receptionist had met her match.
While waiting, I imagined myself telling anyone seeking my opinion that professional staff within medical offices and hospitals should heed the little things that comfort patients. I would tell them that little things are important. Staff should know that routine for them is crisis for the patient. I would remind them that there is only one opportunity to make a first impression. First impressions are made up of little things. Little things can make a big impression. If the front office experience is poor, anxiety increases and confidence in the rest of the enterprise becomes more doubtful. In other words, if the dentist’s receptionist is a barracuda, don’t expect much pain relief when you get to the back office.
Then, we heard our name called out and we were on our way into the back office.
The interview with the surgeon was probably over within minutes but it seemed much longer. He began with a firm handshake. Then, sitting beside us not across a table, he spoke confidently in clear, crisp, explanatory sentences. These, he must have repeated on hundreds of previous occasions but it didn’t seem that way. He anticipated our questions and acknowledged our sense of urgency.
In the end, the professionalism of the porter that morning and his memorable welcome was the bellwether for what followed. The surgeon’s skill and experienced team determined what was to be a favourable outcome. But something else made a difference and a lasting impression. To borrow from the poet Maya Angelou: “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Fergus Shanahan, MD, DSc
Professor and Chair,
Department of Medicine,
Director, APC Microbiome Institute
University College Cork,
National University of Ireland
Tel +353-(0)21-4901226 also cell phone 086 280 4881