More than a voice: The hidden battles of a Lincolnshire GP receptionist

"A great reception team is the key to a smooth running practice"
Joseph Verney

Joseph Verney

More than a voice: The hidden battles of a Lincolnshire GP receptionist

With the never-ending battle to get a doctor’s appointment, receptionists often take the brunt of the criticism due to being considered a barrier for patients, when in fact they can be the “key to a smooth running practice”.

Natalie, who is in her 40s, has been a receptionist for Sleaford Medical Group for 10-and-a-half years.

She admitted that before starting in the role she was “under the impression that it would be an easy job, clicking patients into their appointments and that would be it.”

However, she soon realised the reality of the situation, saying “from the minute you start work,it is all systems go” and often fields over 200 phone calls a day.

It isn’t just a large number of phone calls receptionists have to deal with. They also have the askmyGP online service to sort, where there are often over 150 requests, as well as people at the front desk all wanting to see someone.

Natalie said: “There is also a lot of behind the scenes work that we do, which people don’t see, or even think goes on.

“We get tasks from various people around the practice to contact patients, cancel appointments when a clinician is poorly, change addresses, register patients, and we deal with post and emails.

“We help co-ordinate patients who need a visit, we act as chaperones, we deal with patients who have died and complete the paperwork — all while trying to answer the phones.”

She added: “Most of us get in early to get a head start on the day,” she said. “We often have over 200 calls trying to get through to us before 9am, and obviously we can’t answer them all. We just try to answer as many as we can.”

To add to the frustration of patients not being able to get seen that day, a staggering 100,000 GP appointments, both in-person and virtual, went unattended in Lincolnshire in the first seven months of the year.

When asked if receptionists have an unfair reputation at times, she added: “We do find that if there has been some negative press about GP surgeries, we will bear the brunt of it for the next few days.

“But on the whole, most of our patients are really lovely and very understanding that there are only so many appointments to go around.”

Despite the criticisms receptionists face, Natalie says she loves her job.

“The best part is interacting with people, and I like to think I bring some kindness and compassion to them if they are feeling poorly or worried.

“I like being able to help people and I like the unpredictability of every day.

“So I like to think that I am not the ogre behind the desk shouting at people as we are portrayed to be, and we are just regular people trying our best with an awful lot of challenges in our path.”

Debbie Taylor, Practice Manager at Sleaford Medical Group.

Practice Manager Debbie Taylor praised the importance of her nine-strong reception team saying they are the “key to a smooth running practice”.

“Our receptionists have to be multi-taskers,” she said. “From the minute we open, the pressure doesn’t let up.

“They have to keep a lot of plates spinning and most of our patients understand they are doing their best.

“They do sometimes get the receiving end of patients’ frustrations with the system, and it’s not nice to be shouted at for something that is not your fault.

“They turn up every day and do the best they can, and it’s really hard to see them in tears when that isn’t appreciated. Thankfully those occasions are few and far between.

“I think a lot of patients would be shocked by how much work happens behind the scenes. A great reception team is the key to a smooth running practice, and they do a challenging job really well.”

She added that the government sometimes tells the nation to contact their practice about something “before they have even spoken to us about it, or put a plan in place, causing chaos on our phones”.

People sometimes complain about receptionists, but what would they say if they dealt with AI instead?

At the recent Greater Lincolnshire LEP Conference, headline speaker Dr Paul Redmond gave an insight into how workplaces and people are evolving and the likely rapid change over the next decade or so.

Dr Redmond, who is director of student experience & enhancement at the University of Liverpool, said: "I've worked with a number of different companies that are replacing their receptionists with robots. This was at Mitsubishi, they said it's a fantastic receptionist, they're always cheerful, they don't need a comfort break, they can speak any language, they're always there, they never take leave, they're really effective.

"The NHS are now seriously thinking about replacing their receptionists with robots.

"I've got a vested interest in this because my wife is a doctor's receptionist. I want to tell her that she's got a zombie job. I just can't get an appointment with her."