What Hospitals Could Learn from Applebee's

It's been less than three months since I was diagnosed with cancer, and in the past 11 weeks I've seen more doctors, nurses and lab technicians than I'd planned to in my entire lifetime. It's a bit like an Applebee's—a host to get your table, a bartender to mix your drink, a waiter to take your order, a busboy to clear your plates. Only, you get better service at Applebee's.

I understand that much of the red tape put into place in healthcare is meant to protect the patient. HIPAA, for instance, can complicate matters, but its intent is to protect my privacy and I appreciate that. But there are other bullshit chains of command that only stand in the way of healthcare's primary goal, which is to get sick people well.

From what I've seen, every healthcare professional could stand to learn the same lesson that every teenager learns at his or her first shitty job folding v-necks at the Gap or slapping together turkey clubs at Panera: the customer is always right.

Last week, I contracted a fever of 101 degrees. This could be dangerous, as my compromised immune system is extremely susceptible to infection. Rather than contact my oncologist, I called the hospital's urgent care hospital, as I'd been instructed to do. The nurse there told me that he would page my doctor's office and that I would get a call back telling me whether I needed to admit myself. I never received that call.

Following a shot which can cause bone pain, I developed a pulsing migraine. I called my oncologist to see if it was to be expected and whether or not something could be done for the pain (I'm not allowed to take acetaminophen during chemo). However, when you call the oncologist, you don't speak to a doctor, or even a nurse. You speak with administrative staff who take down a note and pass that note to a nurse when they have a minute to spare and the nurse calls you back when she has the time. What I had was a yes or no question that took an hour and a half to answer.

These systems are put in place for a reason. Obviously my oncologist can't be fielding calls all day from each of his patients, but when the system leaves a cancer patient with a fever to sweat it out overnight, who's it protecting?

I don't have a medical degree, but I do have cancer. And this means I have a million questions. But more than once, I've been made to feel silly for asking for clarification on concepts that may seem simple for someone with decades of experience. If I had to choose, I suppose I'd rather my doctors focus more on my treatment than my feelings—but why can't both be considered?

I'm unbelievably grateful to the doctors and nurses who are literally saving my life. But there is some disconnect.

The professionals I'm dealing with have never been in the patient's chair. The technician who inserted a tube into my elbow and threaded it up a vein into my chest has never felt the extreme discomfort. The nurse who administers my chemo with a warning that it may cause a mild allergic reaction has never felt the hives crawl up her chest and neck. The doctor who harvested my bone marrow has never felt the pain of a drill going into his pelvis. And the laboratory doctor who told me breezily "what we're dealing with here is lymphoma" has never had his life changed by seven words.

At Applebee's I can ask questions about the soup of the day, and it's delivered with a smile. If it's cold, I get a new one. So why can't hospitals and healthcare clinics offer the same level of service to patients who are sick, but also very, very scared?

Art by Jim Cooke // Source Photos via AP and Shutterstock