The study published in the British Journal of General Practice analysed 447 incoming calls to three GP practices for effective communication. The results were then compared with patient satisfaction scores.
The researchers said: 'Survey-based research shows that the helpfulness of the receptionist, along with communication with the doctor, is the most important driver for satisfaction among UK patients. However, little is known about what constitutes such helpfulness; that is, evidence of what needs to change to improve patient experience regarding access to their GP.'
The researchers found that practices where more patients had to push conversations forward because of poor communication by receptionists had lower patient satisfaction scores.
Less effective receptionists failed to offer alternative courses of action when they could not meet patients’ first requests, leaving the burden on patients to drive the call forwards, the analysis found. They also closed calls prematurely, before confirming the details of next actions.
In the more effective calls, receptionists made alternative offers and summarised patients’ appointments or confirmed what would happen next.
The researchers said the study had implications for training receptionists, which should focus on confirming appointment details and offering alternative courses of action if patients’ initial requests cannot be met.
Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the RCGP, said that receptionists were key to the smooth running of a practice, but that in most cases patient dissatisfaction was a result of issues outside the receptionist’s control.
‘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,’ she said.
Dr Baker added that NHS England had promised funding for training reception and clerical staff in the GP Forward View, which 'would have important ramifications for the role of the GP receptionist and the overall patient experience'.