For NHS Change Day 2014 I decided to pledge to find out for myself what it is like working as a receptionist. As a GP I obviously interact with our reception staff all of the time, sometimes giving them work to do, sometimes receiving work from them. I hear from them how difficult a job it can be, and how challenging the patients can sometimes be with them. I wanted to try things out for myself.
After raising this suggestion at the practice (Swanlow Practice in Cheshire) I was delighted to find that other GPs would also like to do the same. On the day four of us each took turns to do an hour stint. I had the 9.30-10.30am slot. I was fortunate that the early morning rush had settled down, and I’m told that it was uncharacteristically quiet during my ‘shift’.
I spent the time on the front reception desk, dealing with patients presenting with various requests. I can remember dealing with people who wanted to make appointments, people who for some reason had been unable to check themselves in using our automated check in screen, people asking for repeat prescriptions, people dropping off prescription requests and more. I was also expected to ‘log myself into the phone system’ whenever the queue disappeared, and then to answer the phone when able.
So, what did I learn?
Firstly, that this is not an easy job! This should be an obvious thing to say, but until you do it for yourself, you never really know. I thought I already knew how to use our computer system, but suddenly I was having to use parts of it that I don’t usually use. There were also a number of processes that I had no idea about, like where the repeat prescriptions for the pharmacies are stored, or what to do with urine samples handed to reception requiring ‘dipstick’ by the nurses. I was also ‘told off’ by the reception staff for ‘consulting over the reception desk’! I found myself giving advice and trying to sort out the medical problem (I am a doctor after all!), but they pointed out that I was there to be a receptionist, and they would never have done that.
I found the experience of dealing with a patient at the desk while the phone was also ringing incredibly stressful. We impress upon our receptionists the importance of answering the phone as quickly as possible, and patients often grumble about how hard it is to get through on the phone. I have a much greater understanding now of how difficult that can actually be to achieve. I was so impressed by the ability of our staff to both multi-task, and to seamlessly switch from one task to another. The moment there was no queue and the phones were not ringing, they did not stop, rest and put their feet up, they were immediately onto another task, sorting prescriptions or checking tasks on the computer.
One of my GP colleagues sent reception the following note after her hour on reception that day, and it sums up my feelings: “After spending just one hour on reception this afternoon I know that I have not even seen half of the work that you do, but I wanted to say that I think you all do an amazing job…’
Receptionists get a very bad press. I think this is so unfair. They are doing a very difficult job under very difficult circumstances. I also understand that they do not always see people at their best. People trying to make an appointment to see their GP can be stressed, anxious, unwell or in pain. They can see the receptionist as a barrier they have to get through in order to see the doctor.
The one thing that I was not really expecting to come out of this was how I think it changed the dynamic between me and the reception staff. They now know that I understand (a bit more) about what they have to deal with. They were impressed that we had taken the time and trouble to do this.
My take home messages after this experience are that GP receptionists do a great job; that this job is much more difficult than you might imagine; that any employer really ought to spend time working in all the roles they can to gain a better understanding of what their employees do.
So, if you are a GP, would you spend an hour on reception? Why not? Give it a go, you might learn something unexpected.
If you decide to take on Dr Jonathan’s challenge to spend an hour on reception, tell us about it at changeday.nhs.uk/tell-us-your-action.
These stories have been adapted from Dr Jonathan’s blog. You can read the full stories at www.valeroyalccg.nhs.uk/blog/categories/24.