Receptionists quizzing patients about why they need to see their GP could be putting some sick people off visiting their surgery, a survey suggests.
Of almost 2,000 adults questioned for Cancer Research UK, four in 10 said they disliked having to discuss their ills with office staff in order to get an appointment.
Many were worried about making a fuss.
Experts say patients must be forceful and not take no for an answer if they have symptoms that need investigating.
The government says it is funding training to help receptionists learn how to be sensitive to patients’ needs.
Receptionists are the first point of contact in primary care and it is their job to decide which patients should see the GP and how urgently.
They do a vital job, but feedback from patients reveals some can be off-putting.
In the survey, the top three barriers to seeing a GP were:
- difficulty getting an appointment with a particular doctor (41.8%)
- difficulty getting an appointment at a convenient time (41.5%)
- dislike of having to speak to the GP receptionist about symptoms (39.5%)
Around a third of the patients interviewed were also concerned that they might be negatively viewed as the type of person who makes a fuss, the Journal of Public Health – which published the survey results – said.
Lead researcher Dr Jodie Moffat urged people with symptoms to “grab the bull by the horns” and seek help rather than suffer in silence.
“Don’t let yourself be put off. Make that appointment,” she said.
“Be forceful. I know that’s easier said than done. 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.”
Worrying symptoms that need a medical opinion include bleeding, a persistent cough, a change in bowel habit and unexplained lumps or swellings.
‘Onus’ on receptionists
Dr Moffat said: “If you find it hard, ask a friend or a relative to make an appointment for you. Or go online. Lots of GP surgeries now take online bookings.”
Prof Elizabeth Stokoe, from Loughborough University, recently carried out a study that listened in to the conversations of patients and GP receptionists.
She found patients often had to drive the conversation to get answers.
“The onus should be on the receptionist to provide all the information, but often it is the patient who has to push to get it.
“If they don’t push then they get no service at all or they desperately scrabble to get their voice heard.”
Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said doctors understood that their patients would prefer to speak directly to them about their health, especially when it is something sensitive or embarrassing – but it is not always possible.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Earlier this year, NHS England announced new funding towards training receptionists, among other things.
The first £5m out of the total £45m General Practice Forward View fund will be made available to practices this autumn.