Receptionists take on the brunt of patients' emotions Print
Wednesday, 06 July 2011 01:24

Although we often focus on how clinicians, particularly physicians, can provide more empathetic, compassionate care, there's been little credit given to front-line administrative staff for the skill in managing patients' emotions as part of carrying out their other duties. But a new study out of the United Kingdom takes a deeper look at the role of the medical office receptionist and offers advice on how practices can set up front-desk staffers for smoother interactions with patients.

For the study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, lead author Jenna Ward from the York Management School of the University of York in England observed and interviewed nearly 30 receptionists in general practice offices throughout the country. During the course of the three-year study, Ward watched front-desk employees work directly with up to 70 patients and family members in a single day. According to a summary of the study in the New York Times, the receptionists' "emotion... ally challenging work ranged from confirming a prescription with an angry patient, to congratulating a new mother, to consoling a man whose wife had just died, to helping a mentally ill patient make an appointment."

Ward also observed that the most seasoned receptionists were good at rapidly changing their emotions to address new situations and patients, such as by answering the phone in a cheerful voice immediately after a difficult conversation. A number of the staffers, however, took an objective, somewhat detached approach to challenging encounters, leading patients to become more frustrated and even perceive the receptionist as blocking access to care.

To help avoid these tensions, practices should communicate their policies to patients before they reach the front desk, Ward said. She also recommended that receptionists get training on not just the administrative but the emotional aspects of their work.

To learn more:
- read the article in the New York Times
- see an abstract of the study

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