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I’ve heard of one condition per consultation, but one ear?

By Richard Hoey

Pulse editor Richard Hoey argues that for nurses to restrict patients to having just one ear syringed in a 10-minute consultation is an efficiency measure too far

Today, I'm planning to play the role of the disgruntled patient.

It's not a role I play very often, and it doesn't come naturally to me, but I reckon on this occasion I may just be able to pull it off.

I've been suffering from badly blocked ears for the last few weeks. It's hardly life-threatening, but it has left me existing in a strange, sensorily deprived bubble, so I've been keen to get my ears syringed to get it fixed.

I phoned up my nice GP practice in south London and was encouraged first to use ear drops for four or five days before booking an appointment for syringing.

The drops didn't do a great deal, so I called again, but the next available slot with the nurse dealing with such minor conditions was in another week and a half.

I don't mention this to complain, but simply to emphasise that by the time I arrived at my appointment this week, I was rather looking forward to being dewaxed.

The nurse though was having none of it, or rather, she was having exactly one half of it. ‘We can only do one ear' she said, as soon as I sat down.

I was rather confused by this, and it took me a while to say much in response. Apparently, the policy was that only one ear could be syringed in a 10-minute consultation. If I'd wanted two ears syringed, I should have specified this when booking my appointment.

I wasn't terribly happy about this, but my disgruntlement turned to bafflement when she finished my first ear in less than a minute, leaving, even given the fact that the consultation had begun several minutes late, two or three further minutes when she could have been syringing my other ear.

Instead, she spent that time explaining to me that this was just ‘what general practice is like', searching vainly but theatrically for another free appointment slot elsewhere in the practice, and arguing that if I really wanted my second ear syringed, I would just have to wait for a few hours until the end of her session when there might be time to squeeze in my right lug.

Now, I'm not one to complain normally, but I did politely point out that it was my understanding that the 10-minute consultation was a guideline average, rather than an absolute cut-off beyond which terrible things would be inflicted upon patients and staff. I avoided the temptation to assure her that this was not, in my experience, what ‘general practice was like'.

And she did, eventually, after several wasted minutes, and with some ill grace, agree to syringe my second ear…

Now this is a pretty trivial episode I know, but I thought it did raise one quite important point. I'm not an especially forceful personality, but I am a middle-class, reasonably articulate sort of chap, and I am therefore capable of negotiating with healthcare professionals when I don't get the care I expect.

I'm capable, in other words, of playing the role of the patient effectively. But not all patients are capable of playing that role, and it worries me that some of them could be wondering around today with one nice clean ear and another stuffed full of wax.

Richard Hoey, Pulse editor