When air travel mimics the patient experience

May 31, 2019

During a recent trip turned nightmare, a doctor finds parallels between her frustrating ordeal and the patient experience. 

Editor’s Note: Physicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. The opinions expressed are that of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Physicians Practice or its publisher.

I attended a conference last week on the East Coast – a trip that required a connecting flight through Chicago O’Hare Airport. Generally, I avoid O’Hare at all costs given its seeming proclivity to trap wary travelers. However, that was really the best choice among limited options for getting to and from the conference. Without going into too many details, the flight there involved mechanical issues that ended up delaying my arrival. On the way back, it was worse. A series of flight delays earlier in the day rippled throughout the rest of the schedule and pushed my first flight back enough that there was no way to make the connection to my home airport until the next morning. 

I did make it home just after midnight, but it came after a mini-breakdown at the airport, pleading with multiple agents at two different airports, and eventually being thankful that my last flight ended up being delayed long enough that I not only got on the flight but had my dinner at the airport purchased by the airline.

As I went through the experiences involved in my ill-fated airline travel, I thought about going through the delays, frustration, ineptitude, flat-out rudeness, miscommunication, more delays, and despair with the added burden of abdominal pain or a breast lump or a migraine or a sore throat. You see, as I experienced different aspects of airline travel, I saw many examples of caring, attentive, and competent people; a number of people who were neither benign nor malignant; and a few who made a bad experience even worse. 

When I had to have my original flight rescheduled, the agent made an error and canceled my entire return flight – similar to when a patient calls to make an appointment change and has it done incorrectly so that they show up at the right place at the wrong time.

Once we got on the plane and pulled out to the runway, we ended up stopping, waiting, then going back to the gate, unloading, and deplaning. Unfortunately, patients can experience a run-around of epic proportions just trying to navigate a hospital stay or see the doctor for their appointment – spending valuable time waiting for something that is delayed over and over again. 

In the airport waiting for my return flight, I called the airline directly when there were no gate agents anywhere. As I waited and waited for my call to be answered, I thought of our patients who wait and wait to speak to a nurse about their symptoms. The gate agent spent over 30 minutes with me on the phone, but at the end I was no closer to home than when I started the conversation. While polite, he was unable to help me. I imagine patients feel a similar frustration when they call, wait on hold, and are ultimately told that there is nothing that the nurse, doctor, or receptionist can do for them. 

My flight was supposed to be rebooked on another airline. The agent who did this assured me I was all set. I was not all set, because when I checked in at the other flight, the transaction had not been completed. I was impressed by all the times that I’ve forgotten to send a prescription to the pharmacy and get a phone call from the pharmacist once my patient shows up. On one leg of the flight, the plane was freezing and the stewardess couldn’t make it warmer – probably how my patients feel waiting in a gown for many minutes in the exam room.

Finally, I considered the gate agent who was rude and completely unhelpful. She made me feel worthless and helpless. She demonstrated no compassion for what was an incredibly long and frustrating day of travel, probably much like my patients feel when they are sick or injured and are treated as an inconvenience by a receptionist, nurse, or doctor.

 

Today, when I was in clinic, a patient showed up 20 minutes late for the appointment. I usually see patients regardless, but today I was able to extend more compassion than I usually do and did not feel resentful that my schedule was going to be impacted. Instead, I considered all the many things that could’ve led to his late arrival and that he was being seen for something quite painful and acute. While I would not want to repeat any aspect of my travel (and hopefully I won’t by avoiding O’Hare), I appreciate the perspective it gave me on service, kindness, and the ability we all have to make decisions that influence those around us.

Jennifer Frank, MD, is a family physician and physician leader in Northeastern Wisconsin and finds medicine still to be the best gig out there. Married with four kids, she is engaged in intensive study and pursuit of work-life balance.