“And what do you need to see the doctor about?” – The evolution of the medical receptionist 

“And what do you need to see the doctor about?” – The evolution of the medical receptionist 

The life of a medical receptionist can be very demanding. Being the first point of contact means often having to deal with patients who are stressed and emotional about their health. Patients are of course well within their rights to feel this way, but this does mean that receptionists have to sometimes deal with tough situations.  


There is a perception that the medical receptionist is the only untrained staff member at a surgery, but this could not be more wrong. Clerical staff will often have years of experience behind them, and the training available for medical administration staff is comprehensive and accredited. The British Society of Medical Secretaries and Administrators (BSMSA) has courses on dealing with difficult situations and customer care, and there are of course the nationally-recognised AMSPAR qualifications.  


Medical receptionists provide more than just an appointment booking service, and the role is now set to evolve even more.


The medical receptionist as a care navigator 


NHS England has recently set aside funding for the development of practice staff. This funding is to be used by practices in the training of their reception and clerical staff, and will support a new aspect to the receptionist role – that of “care navigator”.  


The £45 million fund is being allocated over a period of 5 years until 2021. This is to be used to support training reception staff in the area of “active signposting”. This new scheme, whereby patients will be screened by the practice receptionist, will help to direct patients to the most appropriate source of care. This could be through the use of web or app-based portals, self-management, or by signposting to the most relevant healthcare professional.  


The care navigator approach is expected to ease demand for GP consultations by 5 percent. It will also help receptionists develop their skills so they can be confident in their assessment of a patient’s needs.  


Some surgeries are already finding that implementing this “triage” stage into the appointment booking process is helping to direct people to the most appropriate facility and, as a result, is easing pressure on GP appointment waiting times. In a West Yorkshire group covering around 65,000 people, one scheme found that 930 hours of GPs’ time were saved by this initiative. However, this new approach will not be without its challenges. A recent Cancer Research survey found that 40% of people dislike having to describe their symptoms to a GP receptionist in order to get an appointment. But this is often simply part of practice policy. “Receptionists are told to follow the instructions of the GP, and are not being nosey,” says Joanne Packwood, a Designated Medical Secretary. “They are asked to triage patients so they can figure out where to fit them in, usually in what is an already overbooked clinic.”

Some work needs to be done, therefore, to overcome this challenge.  


Can it work in private health?  


Private practices will not be under the same pressures experienced by NHS GPs. However, this does not mean that the idea can’t be successfully implemented in a private medical space. Some practices may even use similar systems already, but others may want to think about a similar training scheme before staff take on these additional responsibilities. “I think that training for this in the private sector would be helpful,” says Monique Van Der Berg, a Designated Medical Secretary. “Depending on the job role, it may be very useful – some staff members may not have had this responsibility before.” 


If, as expected, this results in making a practice more efficient then it is a great time-saving exercise for all involved. The patient may need urgent care, in which case they can be directed to another appropriate facility, or they may need simple treatment that can be provided by a pharmacist.  


Can anything else be done? 


Despite all the training mentioned above, there will still be scenarios that are less than ideal. Conversations between medical receptionists and patients may be overhead in waiting rooms, and some staff may deal with situations in a less than sensitive manner. To deal with these challenges, managers need to evaluate performance to ensure that staff actively use their training, and perhaps even reconsider practice procedures in relation to screening patients. For example, telephone screenings could take place away from waiting room areas to avoid conversations being overhead.

Another issue for NHS practices is that the funding made available through the NHS England scheme does not cover all the skills needed to provide a good service. Customer service, safeguarding and information governance training is not covered under the scheme, so practices need to find funding for this elsewhere. In an area of healthcare that is already under pressure, this may be difficult for practice managers. 


Whether in the private or public sector, the patient’s needs should be the first concern of any team member. “The medical receptionist or secretary should always be polite and calm, but assertive,” says  Joanne Packwood. “They should also feedback what the patient is telling them so they feel understood and reassured.” In addition to this, team members need to have a good knowledge of the specialty they are working in. “If the patient knows that the secretary knows what they’re talking about and understands what the patient is going through, this will reassure them appropriately,” offers Monique Van Der Berg. 


Above all, there is the need for the sensitivity and confidentiality that all patients rightly expect from any healthcare provider and facility. Patients need to be confident that their care is being dealt with efficiently and by a team member who is appropriately trained and dedicated to their role. 



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