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Am I being served?

1 December 2010

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Tom Brownlie

AMSPAR Chief Executive

Seldom does a patient arrive at the surgery or hospital full of the “joie de vivre”. Usually the person is there to have a problem sorted. For this reason alone the receptionist has a role to play in providing a welcome in order to give reassurance through professionalism. This was something that was distinctly lacking when I visited a dental hospital for a check-up the other week.

Welcome reception
Arriving in time for my appointment I was fairly relaxed, as I wasn’t experiencing any pain and certainly not expecting any treatment. However, my mood deteriorated when I entered the dingy waiting room that was already overflowing with patients occupying all the uncomfortable plastic chairs.

I approached the one-staffed reception desk where a woman was dourly typing on a keyboard with both index fingers. I waited as she continued. And I waited. After a time, without taking her eyes off the screen, a sound emanated from her to the effect of “Mmm?” I took this to mean “Can I help you?”, even though it sounded more like “What do you want?”

I explained that I was there for a 4pm appointment, to which she simply replied: “Letter”. I handed over my appointment letter. She filled in a form, placed it in a box and said “Sit down.” At no point did this person look at me.

Finding a now vacated chair, I sat and looked around at the usual notices of warning, out-of-date posters and a staff “in-out” board, which seemed to suggest that less than 20% of the practitioners were “in” – and one of those “out” was the person I was there to see.

I was then entertained by the receptionist as she handled the queries of other patients (confidentiality wasn’t one of her well-hidden strengths). Responding to someone who had been there since 2pm, she curtly told the patient that if she had received the “correct letter” then she should know that she could be there all afternoon.

Hanging around
Another member of staff arrived to occupy the second desk. I was able to learn that she had been outside for some fresh air as she had had a particularly heavy night and was still suffering from a hangover. I pondered if she might have been in the company of the dentist I was there to see.

A sign behind the reception read: “If you have been waiting more than 20 minutes please speak to reception.” Having seen how others had been rebuffed when approaching, I was reluctant to do so. However, as it was now approaching 4:30pm I plucked up the courage. Fortunately, as I was speaking, the dentist came in to call my name. He wasn’t “out” after all.

With the changes coming through the white paper, the patient will be given access to greater choice. At one end, the professionals will be looking at commissioning and provision. The customer will probably be swayed by something far more basic, such as: “Am I treated as a human being?”