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Better GP receptionist training might boost patient experience/satisfaction

Patients sometimes left having to ‘push’ to get effective service, says study

Caroline White

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Better GP receptionist training in good communication skills might help boost measures of patient experience and satisfaction with their surgery’s performance, suggests the first study* of its kind, published in the British Journal of General Practice.

Patients in some practices are having to ‘push’ for effective service, when calling GP surgeries, rather than automatically being provided with options and alternatives, when their needs can’t be met, the findings show.

Although good communication is central to the effectiveness of GP service provision, as well as to patient satisfaction with surgeries, little is known about the actual communication taking place between patients and surgeries.

The researchers therefore set out to assess how receptionists interact with patients on the phone, in a bid to pinpoint aspects of communication associated with effectiveness and patient satisfaction.

They carried out a qualitative conversation analysis of incoming calls, recorded ‘for training purposes’, in three English GP surgeries. Data were analysed qualitatively to identify effective communication, then coded to establish the relative prevalence of communication types in each surgery.

The first 150 calls (according to recording time) from each surgery, were selected for detailed analysis. In total, 447 calls were analysed, all of which were transcribed verbatim.

Analysis of the calls showed that the onus lay with patients to drive calls forward and achieve effective service when receptionists failed to offer alternatives to patients whose initial requests could not be met, at the start of the call or when they failed to summarise relevant next steps at the end of the call, when the appointment or service had been completed but some detail remained unclear to the patient.

In these cases, receptionists moved to close calls prematurely, leaving patients needing to push back into the call for additional information or confirmation (an appointment, follow up call, further query).

Coding revealed that the frequency of patients having to take the initiative varied across the services. But in practices where this was more common, it was associated with lower levels of satisfaction on published satisfaction survey scores.

The researchers conclude that patients in some practices have to ‘push’ for effective service when calling GP surgeries, but that receptionist training in good communication skills could help improve patient experience and satisfaction.

"It is not an easy job, and all too often receptionists bear the brunt of criticism if a patient is not satisfied with the care they receive. Yet, in the majority of cases dissatisfaction may be as a result of circumstances out of receptionists' control; a lack of GP appointments due to the intense resource and workforce pressures currently facing general practice,” suggested Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of GPs.

"It's important to remember that whilst receptionists play a pivotal role in delivering patient care, they are not healthcare professionals, and should not be put in a position where they have to make decisions about our patients' health,” she said.

“One of the key pledges in NHS England’s GP Forward View is the delivery of nationwide training for the whole practice team, including receptionists and clerical staff. This would have important ramifications for the role of the GP receptionist and the overall patient experience, and the College will be following developments closely," she added.

Stokoe E, Sikveland RO, Symonds J. Calling the GP surgery: patient burden, patient satisfaction, and implications for training. Br J Gen Pract, published 16 August 2016. DOI: 10.3399/bjgp16X686653 

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