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GP receptionists should be trained to 'deal more sensitively' with patients

Published 11/10/2016

Questions have been raised over whether receptionists at GP clinics should triage patients
Questions have been raised over whether receptionists at GP clinics should triage patients

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

A new study found that both men and women dislike telling receptionists what is wrong ahead of being able to book an appointment with their GP.

It is common practice for receptionists to ask about symptoms when people try to book an appointment. Experts argue this helps identify the most urgent cases and puts people in touch with the right service. But critics say 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 around one third of calls were not recognised as emergencies.

In the latest study, published in the Journal Of Public Health, analysis of responses from 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%), or to get an appointment at a convenient time (42%).

A third of people (35%) were put off visiting their GP because they did want to be seen as someone who makes a fuss.

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

The analysis was taken from the Cancer Awareness Measure - a survey of almost 2,000 people 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 (ONS).

It found those from socially deprived backgrounds were more likely than their wealthy counterparts to worry about what the GP may find. They were more likely to be put off the idea of having tests and talking about symptoms, and were more likely to be put off if they could not see their regular doctor.

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 front desk staff including 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 boost the GP shortage. We need more doctors to cope with the growing number of people walking through their doors."

Dr Jodie Moffat, 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 they are when it comes to actually 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, before it's had a chance to spread, and seeking help sooner rather than later could make all the difference."

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman 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 are under no obligation to disclose information they are not comfortable with."

He said the BMA had successfully lobbied for more funding to be invested in receptionist training. This - and other promised funding for GPs - needed to be "implemented rapidly", he added.

Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "While GP receptionists are valued members of the practice team and play a pivotal role in delivering patient care, we understand that our patients would prefer to speak to their family doctor about their health, especially if it is sensitive in nature.

"With GPs making more patient consultations than ever before - 60 million more a year compared to five years ago - GP receptionists ensure the smooth-running of the practice and do their best to help patients see a particular GP at a suitable time for them.

"However, it is important to remember that they are not healthcare professionals, and are not in a position to make decisions about our patients' health."

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