GP receptionists should ‘deal more sensitively’ with patients

Telephone staff could put people off seeing their GP by asking about their symptoms, according to new research.

Receptionists could put people off seeing their GP by asking about their symptoms, according to new research.

A study found that people dislike telling receptionists what is wrong with them ahead of being able to book an appointment with their GP.

It is common practice for receptionists to ask about symptoms; experts say this helps identify the most urgent cases and puts people in touch with the right service. But critics argue that receptionists – who are often not medically trained – should not be allowed to triage patients.

A 2015 study published in the British Journal Of General Practice, where researchers posed as patients with stroke symptoms when calling GP receptionists, found that about one third of calls were not recognised as emergencies.

Patient reluctance

In the latest study, published in the Journal Of Public Health, analysis of survey responses from almost 2,000 people in the UK found 37% of men and 43% of women do not like having to talk to a GP receptionist about their symptoms.

Other barriers to seeing a GP include finding it difficult to get an appointment with a particular doctor (42% of respondents), or to get an appointment at a convenient time (42%).

A third of people (35%) were put off visiting their GP because they did not want to be seen as someone who makes a fuss.

Overall, women were more likely to be put off by the above factors than men.

The analysis was taken from the Cancer Awareness Measure – a survey designed to reliably assess awareness of cancer. It is run by Cancer Research UK via the national opinions and lifestyle survey from the Office for National Statistics.

Symptom awareness

Dr Richard Roope, Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, said: ‘Diagnosing cancer early is something we have to take seriously, so anything that might prevent people from getting their symptoms checked needs to be overcome.

‘We need to ensure that patients are able to get appointments at a convenient time, can book an appointment to see a particular doctor and aren't put off coming to see them in the first place. This may mean more emphasis on training receptionists to deal more sensitively with patients.

‘And it’s vital that the recent investment from government is used to attract talented people into the medical profession, which will tackle the GP shortage. We need more doctors to cope with the growing number of people walking through their doors.’

Further research

Dr Jodie Moffat, the study’s lead author and head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘There’s still more to learn about the things that may put people off going to their doctor, and how important these factors are when it comes to influencing behaviour.

‘But it’s clear that a new sign or symptom, or something that has stayed or got worse over time, needs to be checked out by a GP. Don’t let anything put you off. The chances of surviving cancer are greater when it’s caught at an early stage.’

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said: ‘All receptionists receive training to help ensure that when a patient calls they are given the most effective advice about what appointment they may need – but it is always made clear that patients are under no obligation to disclose information they are not comfortable with.’