In my day job, I’m a medical secretary at a specialty clinic. I love it (usually), but I’ve noticed some points of friction between patients and providers. I’d like to share with you some things you should know from behind the scenes.

From the point of view of the patient, late policies often seem unnecessarily harsh and strict. While the policies vary from place to place, the rule in the office I work in is that if you are more than 10 minutes late to your appointment, you have to be rescheduled. It sounds bad – after all, 10 minutes isn’t that much – but what you may not know is that our doctors are scheduled to see patients every 20 minutes. The most valuable resource in any doctor’s office isn’t some sort of fancy medical equipment. It’s the doctor’s time, and we make good use of it. Not to brag, but we could put the military to shame when it comes to being a well-organized operational unit.

Unless you are going to a pediatrics office, please call ahead if you need to bring a child under the age of 18 with you. (In fact, if you take anything from any of my writing, let it be: Always call ahead.) Different doctor’s offices and hospitals have different rules. You can’t go wrong with calling ahead and saying “Hey, I got stuck with babysitting duty, can I bring this kiddo along?” If you show up with a surprise child, you’ll create chaos behind the scenes. You will not notice any chaos, because we’re professionals, but it’s going to be a minor hullabaloo.

If you know you aren’t going to be able to make your appointment, give us as much advance notice as you can. Just call us. Seriously. Even if it’s an hour before you’re supposed to be there and you went to turn the car on and, oops, battery’s dead. We have a waiting list longer than both my arms put together and the chances are good I can fill that spot with less than an hour’s notice. And even if we can’t fill your spot, we’d at least like to expect not to expect you. Otherwise we’ll worry.

Please don’t complain about wearing a mask. Masks are still required at all MaineHealth locations. I can’t speak for other doctor’s offices, but the chances are good that face masks are required there, too. And even if they aren’t required, you’ll want to wear one anyway. Doctor’s offices and hospitals are full of sick people. Just trust me here.

The enforcement of the mask rules often falls to the most front-facing staff, the first people patients see when they enter a healthcare setting: secretaries and receptionists. Ironically, we also have the least power to enforce the rules. And while it seems that many people think COVID-19 is over with or, at the very least, that we should be used to pandemic-era rules by now, people still get upset when I ask them to put on a surgical mask. I recently had a patient tell me that we didn’t have any rights as long as we were wearing masks. It was a good thing I was wearing my own mask; my mouth literally dropped open like a fish when I heard that. Fortunately, this patient put on the mask without further complaint and sat down. That’s a win in my book. I’ve had some folks get pretty agitated with me. Not many, but enough that I would be happy if nobody ever complained to me about wearing a mask again. And I get it. They’re annoying. They give me zits, too. If you have ever wanted to complain to someone who asks you to put on a mask but didn’t, I’d like to offer you my personal thanks.


Another thing to know is that we hate rescheduling you just as much you hate being rescheduled. Hate it. I got into customer service because I like helping people out and making their day better. Having to tell someone that – surprise! – the appointment they’ve been waiting two months for needs to be pushed out another two months is the opposite of that.

A common misconception is that we reschedule patients to fit in more urgent medical issues. This is not the case. The most common reason we have to reschedule patients, especially at short notice, is because the doctor’s schedule has changed. Despite rumors to the contrary, doctors are, in fact, people. They have car trouble and sick kids just like anyone else.

Pretty much everyone in the health care field right now, no matter what their role, is overworked and underpaid. This goes double for the providers. A medical secretary can be trained and ready to roll in a couple of weeks; becoming a doctor takes years. Maine, in particular, has a provider shortage. There aren’t enough doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses or physician assistants for the number of patients we have. Outlining the reasons for this would take another column, or three. At my office, one of our doctors retired back in March (which, despite being four months ago, feels like four or five years) and we have not yet been able to find a replacement. There was no reduction in patient caseload, meaning four doctors are now doing the work that was previously done by five.

The most important thing for you as a patient to know is that your health care team is doing the absolute best we can, all the time. We love what we do and we genuinely want to help people, in sickness and in health.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.