Least qualified and potentially most influential


People spend more time in one part of the health professional’s office than anywhere else. Waiting times for a 10 minute appointment can be 40 minutes and, unfortunately, longer at some clinics. Patients may even interact with receptionist longer than with their health practitioner. The receptionist will make the appointment, greet on arrival, take details, offer a seat, let the medical team know if the patients condition warrants urgent attention and check the patient out at departure. Yet the word most often uttered by reception staff is:

Sorry. Sorry about the wait. Sorry we have no appointments. Sorry we’re running late.

I agree with Bernadette’s view of the use of this word. Receptionists are in a privileged position to tell the team when they are failing in their mission. But more importantly they can express empathy, notice emergencies, reduce risk (e.g. the child with chicken pox running around a waiting room full of soon-to-be mums), explain when expectations are not met, defuse complaints, maintain a sense of calm when the practice is hectic, embody discretion and confidentiality. Receptionists can underline messages, endorse what the team has to offer or in the moment the patient comes into contact with the practice destroy, or severely compromise the scope to achieve any of this.

The receptionist will be the first to hear if the patient is satisfied and also the first to know if the patient is unhappy. She, and it’s usually a she, will have the least qualifications of anyone in the building and be the lowest paid. Yet she will hear much of what the health professional is told before the patient enters the consulting room. She may have been recruited after a brief interview by the practice manager. Yet this is the face of the practice. This is the person who sets the tone of the patient’s experience and the person who is very well placed to trigger health behaviours in much the same way that front end staff in other businesses are able to influence customer choice.

The receptionist can light up a room by her presence. She can engender calm when the practice is at capacity, she can embody a sense of caring and compassion and promote health in her discussions with patients at the various points at which she interacts with them. Opportunities to trigger health behaviours scarcely have this potential and yet are rarely embraced by innovators.

Picture by Evan Bench

5 thoughts on “Least qualified and potentially most influential”

  1. My receptionist (office manager, friend and protector) tells me I’ve no idea what people can be like. Everyone is on their best behaviour when they are in with the doctor, even if having very recently exhibited irritable, selfish or careless behaviour in the waiting room. I think my job is easier than hers, or perhaps just more comfortable.

  2. We have always been blessed by such staff. We don’t deserve them. They are hardly ever paid what they are worth. Their commitment and loyalty is humbling. As for patients, people who are worried are fearful. Anger is just another manifestation of fear. That they choose to spare us is testimony to the hope we can bring to their situation.

  3. Thank you for acknowledging the importance of that very important first impression made by our front desk staff.
    This also flows over into how the phone is answered both for the person on the other end of the phone as well as those who can hear these interactions in the office.
    Is there any good training products that can help up-skill our team members?

  4. Thank you. Would suggest you might consider what behaviours you would like to see and what factors motivate those behaviours and what factors facilitate them. After that it’s a case of triggering the relevant behaviour ensuring it is rewarded and then becomes a habit. The first place to start is with the affirmation that this is something your entire team wishes to address, including the reception staff. Does that help?

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