Learning to play the waiting game

Lately, I have noticed that my general state of anticipation is often interrupted by unrelenting periods of waiting. I wait in a line at the grocery store, I stand in a line at the bank, I remain on the line for the next available representative (only because my business is important to them), I wait at the gate for an airplane, and at times, I am jammed in traffic, idly sitting in a car.

Giving the subject a deeper thought, I realized that I, too, add to the unbearable burden of global waiting. But I do so in style! While others arrange their patrons in a long line, separate them into several smaller lines, or form a zig-zag, serpentine sort of a line, it is members of my professional group, doctors, that have been using, for generations, a distinct architectural structure with an unapologetic name that hides nothing – the “waiting room.”

Solutions for “The Problem of Waiting” are as ancient as the line itself. As with almost any other problem, one solution is to do nothing, for the waiting line carries valuable information: that the service or the product provided at its end is worth waiting for. Still, at times, a line, especially a long line, sends another message that of inefficiency, even chaos. And patrons react – by leaving.

In the eyes of mathematicians, “The Problem of Waiting”?is solvable by using mathematical models and formulas. I am not going to elaborate on these models for fear of creating lines of readers, heading for the exit, as they are trying to escape the boredom of mathematics. Instead, I am going to briefly mention that the length of a line, according to the queueing theory (the mathematical study of waiting lines) is determined by the number of servers, the rate at which customers seeking a service arrive, and the time required to complete the tasks at hand.

The wonders of these models and formulas may work like this: as you are sitting in the dreaded waiting room, waiting for your doctor, you are starting to wonder why it is taking so long. You immediately remind yourself of the queueing theory. And you forgive your doctor because you realize that in the case of medicine, the number of servers is limited (doctors are not easy to come by), the rate at which patients arrive to seek treatment is highly unpredictable (picture an emergency room minutes after a motor vehicle accidents with multiple injuries), and the time required to complete a task is highly variable (addressing a sore throat may take 7 minutes, but Mr. Smith comes in with chest pain, diabetes, hypertension, an in-growing toe nail and a long list of questions he compiled after searching the internet).

Most of us, though, are not so cerebral, and while we try to analyze our queueing condition rationally, we fall victim to our ‘standing in line’ emotions and feelings. ‘The Problem of Waiting’ quickly translates into smaller, yet critically bothersome psychological problems: waiting in line, we get bored; expecting the line to move faster, we get frustrated; and seeing someone else cutting the line in front of us, makes us angry.

The other day, my patients were perfectly scheduled with enough time allocated to each, and an occasional gap in the schedule to allow for an additional patient in need. But an emergency surgery put me “well behind schedule,” and Mrs. J. was waiting for me for almost an hour. Yet, when I entered the room, sincerely apologizing for my delay, she greeted be with a smile. “I was sitting here reading my book,” she said solving the ‘problem of boredom’. “Your nurse told me that you had to perform an emergency surgery,” she added, solving the problem of “I-am-angry-because-others-cut-the-line-in-front-of-me” problem. And “I know that it may take some waiting at the doctor’s.”

The next and last patient that day was less understanding, a frown crossed his face. I finished the day exhausted, and thirsty. I decided to stop at the fast-food joint and to quench my thirst with a tall glass of soda. Driving into the drive-through I reviewed the advantages of the fast-food industry over medicine – seemingly unlimited supply of servers, short and fixed preparation time, and relatively predictable rush hours. And yet, as I approached, I realized that I would have to wait, for there was a line of three cars standing in front of me.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming. Read and comment on prior columns by Dr. Madjar at DrMadjar.com.