Elderly woman

Michael Burrows

Imagine we’re playing a game of word association and I said the words GP receptionist – what words would spring into mind - and I want you to be honest! …Dragon behind the desk?  Caring? Unhelpful? Contentious? Unfriendly? Trustworthy? Obstructive? Helpful? Jobsworth? Hardworking?

These words might well have been used to describe the mainly women who undertake this role because the GP receptionist can often have negative connotations, often unfairly as these will obscure the more the positive... but how much do you really know about what their job entails?

Imagine a world without the receptionist; no-one to book appointments, triage patients, buffer between the patient and the GP or other practice staff, oversee the repeat prescribing,  report back to patients on their test results or direct people to the correct consulting room, chaos would reign.

Receptionist work has many different facets; they need to have excellent organisational skills to juggle the ever increasing demands placed on the practice’s time. They also need excellent communication skills, in interacting with patients who can at times be upset, confused or even abusive. Empathy is essential. For many people who attend their GP practice on a regular basis, the receptionist often becomes a familiar and friendly person to exchange a few words with – a source of vital social interaction for people who might be lonely and vulnerable. However vital these qualities are, there is also far more to the job than that. 

Receptionists are increasingly required to have a level of clinical awareness as more of their work takes on clinical function, as a means by which hard-pressed practices can cope with the increasing workloads and decreasing share of the NHS budget. The receptionist therefore is fast becoming a vital member of the practice team, as the increasing complexity of care provided in the community requires an adjustment in what work each member of the team undertakes. Many receptionists essentially triage patients for urgent appointments, based on their interpretation of the seriousness of reported symptoms. They can be critical in detecting patients that need an ambulance  – for instance if they have any of the FAST symptoms of stroke. They report the results of medical testing to patients. They take a virtually invisible role in repeat prescribing, bridging the gap between the written requests submitted and the electronically held medical records. They are also involved in the delivery of clinical information, sexual health testing, obesity issues, smoking cessation and others such as public health campaigns. Even from this all too brief description of their work, it’s clear that they are an integral part of the primary care system, essential to its functioning, often working without formal qualifications or training. While training specifically for receptionists does exist this is voluntary and dependent on the general practice in which they work being willing to allocate funds or allow receptionists time away from the practice to undertake it. 

Given the increasing importance of the GP receptionist role, it is chronically under-researched.  Much of the research evidence available is between 20-40 years old and focuses on discrete aspects of the role of the receptionist rather than a more global understanding of their contribution to the delivery of primary care. This means that although the function of the receptionist is changing to take on more clinical roles, the concept of the role, the career path and training of the GP receptionist doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 40 years or more.  This is surprising considering how much attention is placed on career development and training in other areas of the NHS, although this is likely the result them not being a part of the NHS, but employed directly by the practice. Additionally, the role has not been traditionally valued, is predominantly part-time and as we have seen is a role mostly taken by women and so is potentially subjected to gender imbalances in the workplace.

The research that I am undertaking over the next four years will hopefully start to reverse this trend and draw attention to the role of the receptionist. I aim to explore the scope of the role as it currently is; to access views of a variety of stakeholders from health professionals, receptionists themselves and other practice staff and patients and to discover what support is needed for the receptionist, in particular to underpin their clinical roles. Finally, I aim to spark off and encourage debate in academia and practice about this essential yet largely underappreciated role.

Michael Burrows

Michael is a PhD student jointly supervised in the Institute of Applied Health Research and the Health Services Management Centre at the University of Birmingham.  The project is supervised by Professor Sheila Greenfield, Dr Ian Litchfield and Dr Nicola Gale and funded by the Health Foundation.

Michael graduated from Aston University, with upper second in Human Psychology. Since graduating in 2008, Michael has worked as a researcher in public health and alcohol, children’s health and geriatric health.

You can contact Michael by Email: mjb538@bham.ac.uk or on Twitter (@michaelbthree).