I read recently of a GP practice in Oakham Rutland that closed its reception due to physical and verbal abuse of its staff by patients who were frustrated at not being able to get an appointment with a GP at the practice. This reminded me of recent incidents when I had an ailing member of my family, I would ring the GP practice each day at exactly 8.00am, to get an appointment as it was only possible to book to see a GP on that day. At exactly 8.00am I would hit the dial button only to find I was 30th in the queue. On one occasion I got cut off when I had reached 10th place. On redialling I got a message that I was back to 30th in the queue but that my call was important, so please hold on.

It is very clear to see why, by the time people speak to a human being, they are frustrated and sometimes angry, especially if they were already feeling worried or frightened. I must admit that over the time my relative was ill, I found myself wanting to ‘express my feelings’ when I was eventually put through. It is sometimes difficult in stressful situations to rein in emotions. Analysing waiting times, I noted that I spent more than five hours on hold waiting to speak to various medical people in a two-week period. This is, of course, a totally unacceptable situation that, sadly, shows no sign of ending any time soon and is just another example of our unworkable NHS, which is something that we, as eye healthcare practitioners, are only too aware of.

However, it did set me thinking about the thousands of reception staff we employ in our practices. This group of people are, in so many ways, the most valuable asset a practice possesses. They are our front line. Often, they cover for the messes that we as clinicians create for patients, patiently explaining why the contact lenses have been delayed by the courier when we actually forgot to order them. These people are the first port of call when a patient makes contact. These are the people who may have to allay fears in a patient frightened they may be going blind. They, like

doctor’s receptionists, are usually the ones who tell the frightened patient that they must wait to see the optometrist. They, in so many ways, will define your practice. But, how many of our receptionists are currently paid on or near the minimum or living wage? How many of them are on zero hours contracts? What level of training budget do you allocate each year for your reception team? I would suggest that in many cases it is not enough.

Over the years, I have interviewed many people to work as receptionists in my practice. Often, they are people who are currently an optical receptionist working elsewhere and are profoundly unhappy where they are. The reasons are many and varied but, in reality, come down to two things: either they feel they are undervalued or they are asked to perform tasks that they have not been adequately trained to carry out. This is a sad state of affairs. Often, I could tell if I was interviewing a good candidate literally from the first 15 seconds or so, and your new or existing patient will take a very similar amount of time to form an opinion of your practice. Without doubt, the best person I ever employed made a superb impression in those first few seconds. She stayed with me through the rest of my practising career, qualifying as a dispensing optician along the way, and now part owns the practice. From receptionist to practice owner, that is the potential of so many people and something we may underestimate.

A receptionist in any walk of life may suffer the barbs from frustrated patients. Our patients choose to come to us because they trust us and expect a high level of expertise. If they are confronted by a confused, badly trained receptionist it is no surprise they get riled. That is not the fault of the receptionist but that of the practice owner. Putting up a notice saying that staff have a right to work in a non-abusive atmosphere is no compensation to either patient or receptionist. However, it may be an indication that the staff are poorly trained.

Make no mistake, your receptionists are totally invaluable to you. They should be nurtured and encouraged at all stages of their career. Every pre-reg, and probably their supervisors as well, should spend at least a fortnight working a busy reception desk to remind us of all what these members of our teams face every day. Practice owners should definitely do that regularly. Many successful businesspeople spend time on the shop floor to understand what their employees are experiencing. Have you got the skills and abilities to work alongside your receptionist for a few days?