The front desk

After reading a recent study in a social science journal, I think I know who the true emotional virtuosos are at the medical clinic. They’re the receptionists who greet patients, answer the phone, take messages, respond to questions and do it all with a cheerful, sympathetic and helpful attitude no matter what.

The study, which appears in Social Science and Medicine, didn’t receive much fanfare when it was published a couple of months ago. It came to my attention after it was featured last week in the Doctor and Patient column in the New York Times, where it prompted some interesting feedback from readers.

Over the course of three years, the study’s lead author, Jenna Ward, spent hours in general practice physician offices in the U.K., observing and interviewing receptionists as they went about their day.

One of her key findings: Medical receptionists need to be highly adept at managing emotions – their own as well as those of the people around them. They’re called upon daily to be versatile. One minute they’re congratulating the parents of a newborn, the next minute they’re showing compassion to a recently bereaved spouse or trying to calm an upset patient.

In spite of these demands, there has been minimal research on the role of office staff in patient care, and little formal recognition of their need for training and support.

It matters because, as the researchers point out, these frontline workers are part of the team too, even though they don’t provide direct care. Good receptionists and office staff help make the practice run smoothly; inefficient ones result in chaos for both patients and physicians.

Moreover, receptionists have a huge influence on patients’ perceptions of the medical practice. As the first person whom patients encounter when they walk through the door, they can leave an impression that sometimes is more important than the actual visit with the doctor. Is their demeanor pleasant, or is it curt and dismissive? Either one can make or break the patient’s willingness to come back.

“The receptionists make a huge difference,” wrote one of the commenters at the New York Times.

My children’s pediatric practice is incredibly busy and I’ve had to wait on hold for ridiculous amounts of time to make an appointment. I’ve thought seriously about switching but I love the doctors and the reception staff is incredibly friendly and helpful when you do get through and when you show up.

Someone else wrote:

I have dealt with receptionists who have made me never want to make another appointment with the doctor I’m seeing. On the other hand I’ve seen the difference an excellent receptionist can make in any office. It’s not a job for sissies. It takes courage to stand up to an angry patient, to soothe a distraught one, and to do all of this every day of the week.

Another interesting finding from the study: Receptionists often are torn between trying to serve the patient and protecting the doctor from being overwhelmed with phone calls and requests. Although they may adopt an emotional distance to help them deal with difficult situations, it can appear to patients as if they’re being denied access to the doctor. Better understanding of the receptionist’s position could help avoid miscommunication and frustration, the study’s authors wrote.

Is there such a thing as best practices for medical office staff? Mary Pat Whaley, who is certified in health care management and blogs at Manage My Practice, offered a list last year of “21 Common-Sense Rules for Medical Offices.”

Among her recommendations: Dress, speak and behave professionally. Be respectful and compassionate. Always knock before entering an exam room. Wash your hands often. Don’t expect patients to be on time for their appointment when the provider isn’t. Train staff to apologize, and apologize sincerely.

Is it time to focus more attention on training and supporting medical office staff? The authors of the study say their findings indicate “a need to extend emotion management research beyond core health occupations, while at the same time reconsidering the variety and complexity of the techniques used by ancillary workers.” 

Image: Reception area and office staff at Migrant Health Services in Willmar. West Central Tribune file photo.