GP receptionists and health information; it’s all about safety!

We have all been there. You feel rotten and find yourself picking up the phone to make an appointment with the doctor, only to be confronted by a receptionist asking all kinds of questions. Some might even be a little personal. Why is it their business? Who are they telling? Reasonable questions. What if I was to tell you that these experienced ‘Patient Advisors’ are not only booking agents but actually a fundamental part of the healthcare team? They are there to help keep you safe, not gossip about your personal lumps and bumps. No matter how interesting they may be.

Medicine is a tricky business. Community GPs do not have access to hospital scanners and surgeons, they have little apart from their wits and basic tests to diagnose and treat. Some of their morning patients might be colds and bunions, but others may need to go to the emergency department for life-saving treatment. Decisions rely on information, and the more information the better the treatment. If the patient tells a doctor something very serious, it’s best to know early. Booking a phone call is the first opportunity.

Although a recent report suggested that up to 10% of patients are put off seeing their GP by answering questions over the phone, this process is integral to safety. Early identification of worrying symptoms, such as worsening chest pain (which may be a heart attack), will alert the practitioner to the potential need for emergency responses. In this case, the member of staff on the phone is advised to talk to a GP about their concerns and seek guidance. These staff may use ‘traffic light systems’ or ‘algorithms’ that prompt them to advise action, be it ‘call an ambulance’ or ‘see you this afternoon’. These systems are all based on up-to-date clinical evidence and fundamental to healthcare.

For those two minutes answering questions and then being advised to call an ambulance, you could save yourself two hours waiting to see your GP. Sometimes these questions can save lives. Other times, they allow the advisor to structure the GP’s clinic so they see the most worrying cases earlier. It all makes sense when you think about it. And medicine is all about science and common sense.

Of course, not all symptoms are as dramatic, and some may be very personal. Patients are afforded a legally protected confidentiality. ‘Patient advisors’ are held to the same scrutiny as other health professionals, so you can be safe in the knowledge that your chat is confidential. It is important to note that the advisors are not trained clinicians and should not diagnose or offer treatment options, but are part of a team that works together, for you.

Most issues in healthcare come down to misunderstandings or a lack of system awareness, both of which can be solved through compassionate discussions. So please don’t be put off, these questions are there to help you. If you are concerned, feel free to talk to your GP.

Any opinions above are the author's alone. Guidance is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Review any new exercise or diet regime with your primary healthcare provider.

Sources and further reading:

1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37605573

2) http://www.medicalprotection.org/uk/practice-matters-issue-3/triage-in-general-practice

3) http://patient.info/health/heart-attack-myocardial-infarction-leaflet

4) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200146/Confidentiality_-_NHS_Code_of_Practice.pdf