How this doctor manages time

“I should be home well before nine o’clock,” I said to my wife on the phone as I steered my eight-cylinder SUV quietly down the highway at 75 mph with more than 100 miles left to go.

“More like eight fifty-five,” I added.

“That’s well before nine?” She sounded both weary and incredulous. I knew what she meant. I am not as obsessive about time as I used to be, but even outside the clinic, I have an awareness of time that is possibly not entirely normal or healthy.

As a physician in America today, I work within a schedule of fifteen-minute blocks. Some visits, like physicals or hospital follow-ups, are scheduled for thirty minutes, but the bulk of what I do has to average out to fit a fifteen-minute slot, or sometimes, when we double-book, half of that.

It takes constant awareness of time to function in that manner, and I work very consciously not to relay that awareness too plainly to my patients.

Whenever I work with new scheduling staff, I have to help them learn how long things take. They don’t usually know much about medicine, but it is essential to have a sense of which things take a lot of time and which don’t.

For example, a person with acute chest pain and shortness of breath, although this may sound serious, only takes a few minutes, because it involves a triage decision; if it’s bad enough, we ship them out to the hospital. If it’s not, we order a basic set of tests with relatively few possible outcomes.

On the other hand, an older person with fatigue, depression, nausea, weakness, weight loss or any kind of gynecological or bowel related problem takes a lot more time. Just getting an older person undressed and on the exam table can take half of a fifteen-minute slot, let alone take a good history from someone whose memory, conversation style or medical savvy isn’t in tune with the pace of today’s society.

In the past, I remember making lists. An earache takes five minutes, severe headaches up to fifteen, and so on.

I also often say, “iIf you can’t figure out what they need or if you can’t get off the phone with them, I probably can’t solve their problem in a double booked, seven and a half minute slot.”

Compared to ten or fifteen years ago, I am less emotionally affected by my gains or losses in my daily race against the clock. I tend to make more automatic, subconscious corrections in my pace, depending on how my day is going. And, more importantly, I seldom get frustrated about time.

Managing time is a little like driving, more automatic after more years of practice.

I remember how I completely failed to notice two pedestrians trying to cross the street in one of my early driving lessons. I was stopped at a red light on a hill and getting ready to turn left. I was completely focused on my left foot on the clutch, the ball of my right foot on the brake pedal and my heel on the accelerator, hoping the baby blue Volvo wouldn’t stall on me.

Now, even though I don’t drive a standard very often, I can still do those kind of maneuvers without engaging my conscious mind.

In the clinic, even though I am always aware of where I am, time-wise, I almost always carefully control how I express that awareness. My years of experience often help me get to the heart of things quicker than I did in my youth, and my years of relationship building with my patients give me the credibility to sometimes declare priorities when there is more going on than I can reasonably address in one visit.

At the same time, some of the things I have seen over the years have helped me recognize those times when I have to stop everything and do what needs to be done, no matter how long it takes.

Handling time, like so many other things we do in medicine, is a necessary part of our work, but it isn’t the essence of our work. Time can be a distraction, just like our technology can be too visible.

People who don’t treat patients themselves don’t usually understand the nature of our work. Instead, they focus their attention on things they know: Is the doctor running on time, is the documentation complete, are the billing codes correct, or does the doctor have “huddle” with the scheduler and medical assistant every morning?

Focusing too consciously on any one of such housekeeping issues detracts from the real work that we do, at least when we are new in our careers. For a brand new driver, how you drive is at first more important than where you are going, because of all the components that necessarily go into driving a car safely. For a new healthcare provider, the form of our work tends to dictate the function, especially in today’s hyper-regulated corporate environment.

When we deal with patients, we need to keep the external considerations as invisible as possible. We need to inspire the confidence that we are really paying attention, and we need to create an atmosphere that is conducive to healing.

When I talked to my wife from the car the other night, I should have dropped my instinctive thoughts of that five minute margin, just like I didn’t give her a blow by blow account of which way I was turning the steering wheel, whether I was using cruise control or not, or whether I had switched on my high beams.

I should have just said, “I’ll see you at nine.”

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

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