From 10 seconds to 10 years

By Peter Hourihan
Alberta Ombudsman

(Some details about the complainant have been changed to protect his privacy.)

How does a 10 second encounter turn into 10 years of frustration? In the case of one Albertan who complained to our office, a thoughtless comment led to a breakdown in trust of the health care system – distrust that’s lasted a decade.

In 2004, James had grown extremely tired. He was feeling weak, and experienced an irregular heartbeat. He visited a clinic, and was told to drink fluids and rest.  A week later, he returned to the clinic, still feeling some of his initial discomfort.  Ultimately, James was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.  This was devastating for him.  The doctor went over some aspects of the condition, and prescribed blood thinners, explaining the dosage and frequency, and advised James to have his blood checked in two weeks.

A few months later, James was unceremoniously discharged from the clinic. According to James, the receptionist advised him he was “fired” from the clinic.

In James’ words, the receptionist was unprofessional and unaccountable. The conversation was short, conclusive, and came without any notice.  This too was devastating for James; he was single, and lived alone without support. He had no family doctor, and now, for the time being, was forced to find a new clinic.  Worse, he was not comfortable with how to manage his heart condition.

Over the next several years, James continued to think about this incident, and how unprofessional (and hurtful) it felt.  He believed he didn’t receive adequate attention and was dismissed inappropriately and rudely. Furthermore, he was concerned his medical records were not forwarded to another clinic in a timely manner.  All told, the situation fell far below his expectations, especially given James was struggling to come to terms with his condition.  Still frustrated and angry in 2011, he complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.

The college launched an investigation.  It reviewed James’ complaint, and he later appealed it.  In the end, there was no adverse finding against the doctor involved in 2004. There were also insufficient records to determine the extent of the interactions between James and the now former employees of the clinic. Throughout the investigation and appeal process, James raised administrative and procedural matters.  He had questions and did not feel he was receiving all the information he was entitled to. His doubt in the system had grown over the years, and he was skeptical of what was taking place. James was not satisfied with the decision of the college.

So, he complained to the Alberta Ombudsman’s office, who investigated the matter.  We ultimately found the college acted correctly, and treated James fair.  The investigation confirmed there was insufficient information to determine the level of professional service provided to James in the clinic.  There were no records of such interactions, time had passed, and people were not available.  Further, employment records concerning potential discipline were not made available, which is common and fair. Regardless, James remained dissatisfied with the treatment he received.

In short, a 10 second interaction with a receptionist turned into 10 years of frustration, concern and anger for James. Ten seconds turned into a full investigation, review, appeal and decision by the college, followed by a lengthy and drawn out investigation by the Ombudsman.  Ten seconds turned into lost confidence, lost time, and lost resources.

To be clear, the receptionist (and other staff at the clinic) may not have felt she was unprofessional.  After all, it was a very short interaction.  And, from their perspective, a patient at a clinic does not experience medical trauma.  As a patient, though, James was devastated and concerned about his condition, and the prospect of not having a clinic or doctor to consult with after his dismissal.

So, what’s the answer?  Front-line workers and others in professions of service must remember the importance of clients and patients. Empathy also helps. Take the time to have compassion and patience, even when busy and stressed.

Ten seconds could eliminate 10 years of frustration on the part of a patient or client, in addition to the heavy costs to a system already stretched.  At the same time, we appreciate front-line workers are stretched and stressed on a regular basis.  Employee support can, and should, come from employers and the system. This support should recognize the pressure employees face, and help ease pressure and provide opportunities to lessen strain.

We can all do our part to help Albertans like James. Take the time to help, so 10 seconds doesn’t turn into 10 years.